College for All: Obama's Higher Ed Agenda, Part 3 of 8

Peter Wood

President Obama’s agenda for higher education includes the goal of having nearly all Americans receive at least one year of formal education beyond high school. For shorthand, he has often referred to this extra year as “college,” which has prompted controversy. College for all? He referred to this in his January 24 State of the Union address as part of “the basic American promise,” namely:

if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement.

What this means is a matter of some dispute. According to the New York Times, “almost 70 percent of high-school graduates in the United States enroll in college within two years of graduating.” Is that figure too low? When Obama addresses this issue he sometimes sounds like he is enunciating a general principle that all or nearly all should go to “college” in the usual sense. In other cases, however, he has explained that by “college,” he doesn’t mean only traditional four-year bachelor-degree programs, but also two-year community-college programs and perhaps even other forms of postsecondary training.

A month ago in “Obama’s Higher-Education Agenda” I said I would in a series of posts examine the eight major components of that agenda, and then try to put them together as a whole. In the first of the series, “Supersizing,” I reviewed the President’s dream of ushering in a gargantuan expansion of higher education. In the second of the series, “Price Controls,” I examined his plan to limit tuition increases by punishing colleges that increase their prices too quickly. These two goals and the one I now discuss are plainly interwoven. Gargantuan expansion of higher education requires more students to attend college; price controls are meant to lower the financial barriers to this vast expansion. But Obama’s desire to have nearly all Americans attend college is more than the sum of supersizing and price controls. It is also a vision of how Americans ought to lead their lives and the goals to which we should aspire.

In pressing for a vast expansion in college enrollments, Obama almost always deploys an argument about how this will help our national competitiveness. But in pressing for federal programs that will expedite something approaching 100-percent enrollment of young people in postsecondary education programs, he also evokes other ideals: equality of opportunity, personal fulfillment, and the transformation of American culture.

Lightning Rod

What precisely does President Obama want to accomplish? The matter garnered considerable attention in the last few weeks after Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum criticized Obama’s stand. At a speech in Michigan, Santorum said:

President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college.

What a snob.

When I wrote about Santorum’s remarks in “Rick Santorum Is Right,” several readers quickly posted comments to the effect that Obama has not said “everybody in America should go to college.” David Pittelli, for example, wrote:

What Obama has actually said is that everyone should have at least one year of post-high-school training, including vocational training or an apprenticeship.

True, Obama has said this; and he has also said pretty much what Santorum said he said. He has on some occasions said that he wants every American to have the opportunity to go to college and that he believes all Americans should be able to afford to go to college. These don’t add up to a call for a national draft to support compulsory college attendance, but they come pretty close to the idea that “everybody should go to college.”

Obama hasn’t been speaking of “opportunity” in the sense of everyone should have the opportunity to visit a national park, but it’s OK if you are not interested. Rather, this is “opportunity” in the sense of you should have the opportunity to eat your vegetables, and shame on you if you don’t. Perhaps the more exact phrasing is that Obama would like to make college attendance even more normative for Americans than it already is.

In some recent speeches President Obama seems to be either backtracking from earlier, stronger declarations or perhaps clarifying what he meant all along. At an address at the National Governors Association on February 27, he explained:

the jobs of the future are increasingly going to those with more than a high school degree. And I have to make a point here. When I speak about higher education, we’re not just talking about a four-year degree. We’re talking about somebody going to a community college and getting trained for that manufacturing job that now is requiring somebody walking through the door, handling a million-dollar piece of equipment.  And they can’t go in there unless they’ve got some basic training beyond what they received in high school. We all want Americans getting those jobs of the future. So we’re going to have to make sure that they’re getting the education that they need.


What is Obama’s actual position? Santorum’s remarks prompted observers to go in search of a statement that might settle the matter for once and all. I don’t think there is one.

Politfact reports that it found eighteen examples of Obama addressing the topic in speeches, but:

All but three of them make clear that Obama does not expect every young American to attend a traditional four-year, bachelors-degree-granting college or university or even a community college. In three cases, Obama did say something closer to what Santorum suggested, but still not enough to justify Santorum’s claim.

This strikes me as biased reporting in that Santorum himself said nothing about “a four-year, bachelors-degree-granting college or university.” He merely echoed Obama’s own ambiguous language. Attending college for one year is, after all, attending college.

What should probably be understood as Obama’s foundational speech on the topic was his February 2009 address to a joint session of Congress. There he declared:

Tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma.

It is hardly a great distortion to summarize this as “everybody should go to college.” And elsewhere Obama was more explicit:

Not only do you have to graduate from high school, but you’re going to have to continue education after you leave. You have to not only graduate, but you’ve got to keep going after you graduate. That might mean, for many of you, a four-year university…

- Remarks in a “back to school” speech, Sept. 28, 2011

I want every child in Texas and every child in America ready to graduate, ready to go to college…

- Remarks at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser, Austin, Texas, May 10, 2011

Four Reasons

What we can take from all of this is that President Obama regards college attendance as an unalloyed social, economic, and personal good that the nation should strive to maximize. He understands that a traditional four-year bachelor’s degree isn’t the right credential for everybody, but he is broadly in favor of it as a goal that should be embraced by as many as possible, with shorter and less demanding forms of college (or “postsecondary education”) for the rest.

Is this good social policy?

The higher-education establishment, of course, has spoken in one voice in support of it.  College-for-almost-everyone is good, in this view, for four reasons. (A) It is good because it leads to greater financial security and relative prosperity for the individuals who pursue further formal education after high school. (B) It is good because the growing number of people in this category contribute to the nation’s competitive strength in the global economy. (C) It is good because it provides individuals with the intellectual and cultural wherewithal for richer personal lives. And (D) it is good because it prepares students for active citizenship. All four claims are shakier than they might at first appear.

Financial Security?

The financial security argument is a half-truth or exaggeration. It is true that on average, attending college even for one year correlates with increased lifetime earnings compared to those who receive a high school diploma and do not attend college at all. The magnitude of this college-attendance premium is much disputed, but its existence is not.

Estimates of the lifetime premium range from the College Board’s widely discredited and now abandoned claim of over a million dollars to the $279,893 calculated in 2009 by Dr. Mark Schneider, a vice president of the American Institutes for Research. Last year the Pew Research Center released a report, Is College Worth It? that included the calculation that “a typical student who graduated from an in-state, four-year public university,” gains a “net payoff” over a lifetime of about $550,000.

Some other considerations:

  • Degrees from some colleges correlate with a large premium in lifetime earnings; degrees from other colleges correlate with much lower premiums. See Richard Vedder’s “Why Students Want to Go to Harvard.”
  • Students in college generally forego income, work experience, and seniority they could be earning.
  • Later earnings are offset by debt on college loans.
  • The “lifetime premium” argument deals with averages. Some students earn very large premiums in lifetime earnings; others very little.
  • The value of a bachelor degree as a passport to good jobs has been eroded by credential inflation. Employers in many areas treat the college degree as a gateway requirement, not as evidence of any specific level of skill or attainment. And even jobs that do not require college-level skills are now often advertised as college-degree-required. That doesn’t mean that the employers will pay more for a college-degreed candidate. Rather, it means that the lifetime earnings premium associated with the college degree, measured in real dollars, will probably decline.

These points tend to ricochet off the cast-iron idea that going to college will somehow lead to financial security. A year ago in “If Even Krugman Says It…” I pointed out that even an economist as far to the left as the Nobelist Paul Krugman recognizes the fallacy of college attendance as a compelling answer to income inequality. Krugman wrote:

But there are things education can’t do. In particular, the notion that putting more kids through college can restore the middle-class society we used to have is wishful thinking. It is no longer true that having a college degree guarantees that you’ll get a good job, and it’s becoming less true with each passing decade.

Global Competitiveness?

This was the subject of part one of this series, Supersizing. Bottom line: there is no correlation between the percent of a nation’s population who have received college degrees and that nation’s prosperity. OECD statistics reveal that nations with much lower percentages of college graduates, such as Germany and Switzerland, are often much more prosperous than nations with higher percentages of college graduates such as Russia and Ireland.

A developed nation needs a highly educated workforce, but that doesn’t mean that multiplying the number of people who hold college degrees is a sure path to international prosperity or competitiveness. We need people who have the requisite skills, not a vast expansion of people with college diplomas. College for everyone, or even “post-secondary training” for everyone is too blunt an instrument to deal with the fluid complexities of the global labor market.

In his best-selling book, The Great Stagflation, last year the economist Tyler Cowen observed that the United States had already dined on the “low hanging fruit” of providing good educations to the smart, talented, and ambitious children who, earlier in the nation’s history, had been denied the chance to finish high school or go to college:

In 1900, only 6.4 percent of Americans of the appropriate age group graduated from high school. By 1960, 60 percent of Americans were graduating from high school, almost ten times the rate of only sixty years earlier. This rate peaked at about 80 percent in the late 1960s…In other words, earlier in our history, a lot of potential geniuses didn’t get that much education…Taking a smart, motivated person out of an isolated environment and sending that person to high school will bring big productivity gains. We’ve sent more people to college as well. In 1900 only one in four hundred Americans went to college, but in 2009, 40 percent of 18-24-year-olds were enrolled in college.

The G.I. Bill gave educational opportunities to a large number of people, many of whom were able to take full advantage of what college had to offer. Today, in a vain effort to wring comparable productivity gains, Cowen notes we send to college students “who cannot read well, and cannot perform all the functions of basic arithmetic.” The productivity gains from sending these students to college are not to be banked on. “It’s a long, tough slog with difficult obstacles along the way and highly uncertain returns.”

I expect that President Obama knows this. You can’t have spent as much of your life in and around higher education as he has without realizing that there are many many students enrolled in college (or in “college”) who are hopelessly overwhelmed by even the simplest of college assignments. An indelible portrait of these realities appeared last year in “Professor X’s” account of his adjunct teaching a small private college and a community college, In the Basement of the Ivory Tower. Professor X is wracked with guilt when he has to fail a student but when they fail it is seldom a close call:

My students who fail do so with an intensity that is operatic. They lack skills on a grand scale…

To believe that the United States will soar to greater international competitiveness by sending more of these sorts of students to college is mere wishing. And it suggests that the president’s determination to send everyone to post-secondary-something-or-other is based on a calculus beyond his oft-repeated claim of economic benefits.

Those who have tuned into this discussion generally sense that Obama is leaving something important either unsaid or so understated that it is hard to pick up. Santorum suggested–incorrectly in my view–that the missing factor is snobbery, i.e. the president disdains those who haven’t been educated beyond high school. I think a more compelling explanation is the president’s desire to turn ever greater numbers of young people into clients of the federal government and perforce the Democratic Party. But for the moment let’s stick to the rationales that he has explicitly offered.

Personal Fulfillment?

College as the route to personal fulfillment is the least prominent part of Obama’s college-for-everyone argument. He touches on it very lightly but Obama’s supporters hear the whisper and often amplify it. Is college attendance these days more than a maneuver to gain advantage in the rat race? On their own testimony, most students today say no. Moreover, a great many students find the pursuit debilitating.

As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s 2011 Almanac issue, 29.1 percent of freshmen in 2010 “frequently felt overwhelmed by all they had to do.” And some 48 percent rated their own mental health “below average,” while 75.8 percent declared their “drive to achieve” above average.

The Chronicle’s numbers are drawn from the annual survey published by the University of California at Los Angeles Higher Education Research Institute. According to that survey, the topmost reason given by freshmen for attending a four-year college, cited by 84.7 percent of respondents, was “to get a better job.” 72.6 percent agreed that “the chief benefit of a college education is that it increases one’s earning power.” 50.9 percent listed becoming “a more cultured person” as a very important reason for attending college.

We academics value the life of the mind. But the truth is that our blessing is a bane for many students. Obama’s assumption that only lack of opportunity and excessive expense stand in the way of college for everyone misses a simple reality: lots of Americans hate school or barely tolerate it, and for many a high-school diploma represents the limit of their academic ability and interest.

Active Citizenship?

This theme was on the periphery of President Obama’s rationales for the idea that everyone should go to college. But Obama vaulted it to prominence earlier this year when the White House held an event to mark the release of A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future. I wrote about this in “Civics Lessons.” The report is a call to “transform” students by making colleges and universities into places that produce “globally knowledgeable citizens.” A Crucible Moment in effect calls on colleges to increase their commitment to promoting progressive activism.

But this requires separate treatment and I will take it up in part four of this series.

This article originally appeared on March 6, 2012 in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

Image: Greg Benson Photo

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