More Higher Education for More People: Good for the Country?

Ashley Thorne

Do we finally have a national higher education agenda in the U.S.? Inside Higher Ed suggests we're close. The "now widely held view that the country must in the next 10-15 years significantly increase the number of Americans with a quality postsecondary credential," advocated by President Obama and numerous large foundations has its critics, IHE says. But "few strongly dispute the basic premise that more higher education for more people will be good for the country, its economy and its citizens." This is one of those times where NAS belongs to the "few." We  vigorously dispute the premise that assumes that expanding enrollments will expand national prosperity. The fallacy behind this idea is mistaking most-educated for best-educated. Those terms don't mean the same thing. By 2020, or 2025, or whenever we finally reach the big goals set by President Obama, the Lumina Foundation, and others, we may have the highest percentage of college-educated people, but will we be the world's best-educated? A commenter on the IHE article, Burke Smith, articulates skepticism along these lines:

For instance, without objective standards of educational quality (which higher education does not currently have), incentives for degree completion could very easily lead to a cheapening of the degree. The nationwide growth of grade inflation and corresponding reduction in the amount of time spent studying is one example of such a possibility.

Smith is the CEO of StraighterLine, a company that helps students transfer college credit. We at NAS agree with Smith that incentives for degree completion could very easily lead to a cheapening of the degree. A lot of people with mediocre education won't aid our country in innovation and international competition. And as George pointed out today, more college degrees do not equal economic growth. Check out the full list of NAS articles on higher ed expansion here.

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