Equipping Americans to build decent lives in their communities

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Public education is one of America’s great achievements and has been vital to the nation’s success as a democracy, its rise as the world’s dominant economy, and the flourishing of its citizens.

Unfortunately, policymakers have forgotten what public education is for, pursuing decades of reform that sought to increase test scores and college attendance but served mainly to strip-mine academic talent from local communities while serving poorly the vast majority of young people.

Our national obsession with “College for All” has failed on its own terms: hundreds of billions of dollars in annual subsidies flow to higher education while almost no support goes toward non-college pathways, yet fewer than 1-in-5 young Americans go smoothly from high school to college to career. And it has failed even to aim in the right direction: Americans see equipping young people with the skills and values to build decent lives in the communities where they live as more important than maximizing academic achievement.

At American Compass, we work to understand what Americans want from the public education system and where that system is failing them. We develop reforms at the local, state, and federal levels to address those failures.

The Failing on Purpose collection features essays from leading scholars on the proper goals for public education and survey data on the attitudes of young Americans and their parents.

What has gone wrong? Our Guide to College-for-All presents the latest data on how policymakers have misallocated resources in pursuit of the wrong priorities, while the Failure to Launch survey depicts the catastrophic outcomes that are the result. Our report on The False Promise of Good Jobs demonstrates the mismatch between the obsession with producing college graduates and the skills demanded in the labor market.

What can be done? The Retooling American Education symposium convenes a wide range of policy experts and practitioners to describe practical steps that policymakers can take to refocus public education on the non-college pathways that would best serve most Americans. In particular, our policy paper introducing The Workforce-Training Grant describes a comprehensive approach to the development of a robust, employer-led training system, a version of which Senator Tom Cotton has introduced as the American Workforce Act.

An important argument running through this work is that expanding options and funding alternatives is not enough: The existing higher education industry must also be cut down to size. One reason is that much of the money is simply wasted, and reallocating it offers a budget-neutral opportunity to improve public services. Another is that excessive spending has created toxic economic and cultural incentives for young people to spend their late adolescence enjoying the “amusement park entitlement” of a college campus, no matter the cost. Wiser policy should support those for whom college is a worthwhile investment while holding colleges and universities responsible for serving students well.

The Banality of Student Loans makes the case for reconfiguring higher education financing to offer a single, standard grant that covers partially the cost of a public university degree and then leaving the industry to take financial responsibility for its own results. Escaping the Bachelor’s Fad describes, and proposes an escape from, the vicious cycle in which equating a college degree with competence and success leads employers to demand one, further reinforcing the need to pursue one, even as millions of capable workers without degrees are excluded from good jobs.

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Failing on Purpose

How We Forgot What Public Education Is For

Compass Advisors
Ashley Rogers Berner

Johns Hopkins University

Bruno Manno

Walton Family Foundation

John Sailer

National Association of Scholars


Featured Content

Browse all content in the Education library

Policy Proposals

Policy Brief: Self-Financing by Colleges


Place higher education’s risks on institutions, not students

The Workforce Training Grant

4/7/2022 Oren Cass

Public policy should recognize that employers, not universities, often provide the most socially valuable form of training and should redirect public resources accordingly.

Retooling American Education


How to Move Beyond College-for-All

Escaping the Bachelor’s Fad

6/8/2022 Chris Griswold

For noncollege pathways to be viable, policymakers must reduce employers’ needless demand for college degrees.


Failure to Launch


In the popular imagination, young Americans leave home to attend college, where they earn degrees that launch them into careers. The actual experience is radically different.

The False Promise of Good Jobs

2/17/2022 Oren Cass, Richard Oyeniran

While the share of American jobs requiring a college degree has increased in recent decades, the share of workers holding college degrees has risen much faster.

A Guide to College-for-All


The college-for-all model fails most Americans in favor of a “Fortunate Fifth” who proceed smoothly from high school to college to career.

Failing on Purpose Survey


The American Compass Failing on Purpose Survey explores the perspectives and experiences of those in closest contact with the American education system—namely parents, current students, and recent graduates.


A Nation of Boys at Risk

9/30/2022 Richard V. Reeves

After decades of intensive effort and investment to create an equitable education system, not least for girls and women, the nation finds itself with a peculiar predicament: It is boys who are falling behind furthest and fastest.

The School of Self-Rule

12/6/2021 Bruno Manno, John Sailer

Public education must empower the common citizen.

Making Meritocrats Moral

12/7/2021 Yuval Levin

Public education must form a virtuous elite.


Educational Pluralism with Ashley Rogers Berner


Ashley Rogers Berner joins Oren for a discussion of educational pluralism: the key to ensuring choice and standards in K–12 schools.

Talkin’ (Policy) Shop: Financing Higher Education


On this episode of Policy in Brief, Oren Cass and Chris Griswold discuss how we should finance higher education in the U.S.

Oren Cass on Student Loan Debt


Oren Cass joins Paul Ollinger for a discussion of student debt, “college-for-all,” and how to rethink our approach to education in the U.S.

30 Minutes with Virginia Foxx


Congresswoman Virginia Foxx joined us for a 30 Minutes discussion of how the education system can be retooled to better serve all Americans.

How ‘College For All’ Is Failing Generations Of Americans


American Compass executive director Oren Cass joins The Federalist’s Emily Jashinsky to discuss the failures of the “college-for-all” model in the U.S.

Make Good (School) Choices

12/15/2021 Ashley Rogers Berner, Andy Smarick

Johns Hopkins’s Ashley Berner and the Manhattan Institute’s Andy Smarick discuss options and tradeoffs in restructuring American public education.


A Glimmer of Hope for American Colleges

7/11/2024 John Sailer

New efforts at promoting intellectual diversity on campus could deliver much-needed reform.

It’s Conservatives That Should Be Storming the Ivory Tower

5/13/2024 Oren Cass

Universities depend on taxpayer money to survive, and they are wasting those funds

After Student-Debt Relief, America Must Move Beyond ‘College for All’

9/12/2022 Wells King

American Compass research director Wells King argues for building real alternatives to the “college-for-all” education pipeline in the wake of Biden’s misguided student loan forgiveness.

Biden’s Student Loan Forgiveness is Wrong. Here’s How to Handle College Debt Instead.

8/24/2022 Oren Cass

America has turned higher ed into a lavishly expensive sacred cow, and now we’re all footing the bill. Let’s make college debt boring again, argues Oren Cass.

College Is Not for All

6/10/2022 Oren Cass, Wells King

American Compass’s Oren Cass and Wells King discuss the reality that most young Americans miss out on commencement.

Complacency and Wasteful Spending Blight US Higher Education

12/23/2020 Oren Cass

American Compass’s Oren Cass makes the case against forgiving billions of dollars of student debt and for rethinking our approach to higher education.