College on the Cover: Doom and Gloom Through the Decades

Behold the cover of next month’s issue of The Atlantic, unveiled on Thursday.

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The cover story profiles Ben Nelson, president and CEO of the Minerva Project, a start-up seeking “to replace (or, when [Mr. Nelson] is feeling less aggressive, ‘reform’) the modern liberal-arts college,” writes Graeme Wood.

Questions like “Is college doomed?” are loaded. The Atlantic cover qualifies its bold query by stating in the subhead that “college” refers to “traditional universities.” And “doomed” would more accurately convey the point if it was joined by “… to be disrupted.” It’s an effective hook, summing up the current moment of disenchantment brought about by higher education’s least attractive qualities: student debt, a sexual-assault epidemic, and steadily increasing tuition, to name a few.

But the feeling is nothing new. Bold commentary on the state of a college education (more often, on its shortcomings) has a long history on American newsstands. Consider a Newsweek cover from two years ago:

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In the cover essay, Megan McArdle digs into the “coming burst of the college bubble,” examining factors that had caused the cost of college to balloon.

Look back a few decades, to 1976, and see Newsweek treading similar ground:

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Some recent graduates, it seemed, were overqualified for their first jobs in the 1970s, too.

Zoom in on a particular issue, and the revolving door shows itself in greater detail. For example, college sports. Here’s one of the most famous covers on that topic, from The Atlantic in 2011:

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Taylor Branch’s cover story became a rallying cry for would-be reformers of the NCAA.

A milder cover, from Time magazine in 1989, anticipated Mr. Branch’s manifesto:

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And don’t underestimate the power of an image alone. From The New Yorker in 2010:

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The “boomerang” generation, college graduates so wracked with student debt and poor job prospects that they return home, has gotten a lot of play lately. But The New Yorker has weighed in on graduates’ troubles for years. In 2005 (pre-recession!):

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And — way back — in 1935:

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Hey, at least he had options.

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