By George Leef
Much about the Obama years is fading from memory, including one of the former president’s first goals — to significantly increase the percentage of Americans who earned college degrees. Ten years ago, Obama declared that, in order to maintain America’s world economic leadership, it was imperative that we put many more people through college. We needed to get up to 60 percent of our population holding college degrees, he asserted, a huge leap from the 39 percent at that time.
That was an exercise in foolish central planning, much like the targeted economic plans of the Soviet Union. Instead of being content to leave the optimal level of education up to individual decisions, Obama wanted government to step in and induce millions who did not choose college education to do so, for the overall good of the country.
In a speech announcing his American Graduation Initiative at Macomb Community College in Michigan, Obama stated, “Time and again, when we placed our bet for the future on education, we have prospered as a result.” More college means more prosperity. What could be more simple?
What Obama didn’t realize or wouldn’t say was that large numbers of college graduates were working at jobs that called for nothing more than a basic high school education plus the willingness to learn. College degrees were no guarantee of the knowledge and skills people needed to obtain jobs where there was high demand. The notion that a country can lift itself up just by putting more people through college was akin to the notion that a country can become prosperous just by printing up money.
Under the Trump administration, nothing has been said about the American Graduation Initiative or about any supposed national need for more college graduation, and like most of us, I had forgotten all about Obama’s big plan. But then a friend sent me a piece published by The Hechinger Report entitled “10 years later, goal of getting more Americans through college is way behind schedule.” In it, writer Jon Marcus laments that we aren’t making much progress toward Obama’s goal. At our current rate, he says, his target “won’t be met until at least 2041.”
Assuming that’s correct, should anyone care?
Marcus thinks we all should.
He trots out the statistic that the U.S. “remains stubbornly in 13th place in the world in the proportion of its 25- to-34 year olds with degrees.” Canada, Russia, Japan, Lithuania, Norway, and Ireland are among the countries where a higher percentage of people in that age range earn college degrees, so we are supposed to conclude that we are lagging behind and need to surpass them.
But why? Are those countries leaving America in their dust economically? No. And if we “caught up” with them, would our economy boom?
Marcus would have readers believe that it would. He quotes Obama education official Ted Mitchell who says, “The real downside comes in 10 or 20 years, when this incredible human capital engine that has fueled our economy over the last century starts to sputter.” That’s pure “the sky is falling!” rhetoric. Our human capital development will not “sputter” if we don’t continue putting more and more of our academically marginal students through college.
Furthermore, developing human capital doesn’t depend on going to college at all. Many of our most successful people did not finish or never even started college.
Another bogus reason for worrying about our lack of progress toward Obama’s goal is that many American employers say they are having trouble finding the workers they need. Assuming that’s true, would it help to push more young people through college? No, because college degrees don’t automatically give people the skills that employers want. We’re looking at a serious deficit in the number of welders we need, for example, but that calls for training more welders, not enrolling young Americans in college.
If American businesses need more skilled workers, they will up the money for training them. Waiting for capable workers to trickle down to them after first getting college credentials is foolish and wasteful.
What the article by Marcus reminds us is that there are still lots of “progressives” who yearn for power to dictate educational results. President Trump and Education Secretary DeVos are apparently content to allow the spontaneous order of the free market work when it comes to postsecondary education, trusting that each individual will find his ideal kind and level of education. Let us hope it stays that way.