What's the point of a degree, anyway?

Historiann has started a discussion on the value of college. One of the ideas raised in her post is whether there is an attempt by the elite to pull up the ladder, and discourage those from 'outsider' groups to gain the employment/social access offered by a degree. She notes the recent burst of articles decrying higher education as a waste of time and money for many students, with student debt a hefty millstone for those only making the same salary they could have got with high-school qualifications.

What's the point of university articles are also a regular feature in the UK press, where the former government had a campaign to get 50% of school children to go on to tertiary education. This notion is facing ongoing scrutiny (particularly given that almost all higher education in the UK is funded by the state).

But students themselves want some selectivity, according to this article. After all, if everybody's special, nobody is. If degrees are (perceived to be) a certificate handed to everyone who reaches the age of 22, people will look for other ways to distinguish themselves (by the prestige factor of the university attended, which only counts if not everyone who applies gets in!), or graduate qualifications. Some employers have also echoed the idea that most degrees are pointless.

But these attitudes also seem to come in lock-step with those arguing that degrees are completely dumbed-down. Kids today don't study like they used to. The idea being that getting a degree "back in my day" was worth something, not just because there were good jobs to be had in that rosy era, but because universities back then were full of academic rigour, none of this lefty-multi-culti nonsense that they apparently reek of now. Back when students had to read Cicero, Voltaire and Goethe - in the original - and nobody had calculators in their algebra exams because they had to solve the problems themselves, and kids these days have the youtube and the googles and just don't know how good they've got it... (etc).

I'll admit, that when I read the syllabus that had been offered to undergrads who studied a hundred years before I did: it was daunting. It WAS tougher than what I had to do. Should we be making university courses tougher, so that graduating means something, or is this only going to limit access to those with the (elite) educational background that would enable them to prepare? (and should we care? should our priorities be the advance of scholarship, or to operate as a means of social engineering?)