Obama Smites the Rock

Ashley Thorne

On Monday President Obama rallied a cheering audience of University of Texas students (are they back to school already?) with reminders of his ambitious goal for higher education: to have the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by 2020.  

“New industries and innovations are flourishing; our competition is growing fiercer,” the president warned. Competition “in the 21st century” was a recurring theme in his speech: he feared that the U.S. is “falling behind and unable to compete internationally,” and that “countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”

For that reason, he said, “I want us to produce eight million more graduates by 2020.” He told the audience that the most important thing America can do to succeed is to “make sure that every one of our young people—here in Austin, here in Texas, here in the United States of America—has the best education that the world has to offer.”

This lofty, well-funded goal is a consistent applause-prompter in the president’s speeches. But what would it really mean for higher education and for America? NAS has looked at the consequences in a number of articles, beginning even before President Obama got behind the idea (the College Board, the Lumina Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation had endorsed it).

We contend that such a drastic ballooning of higher education will do to college what has already happened to public K-12 education. It will turn higher education into a public good, making the United States the most-educated nation, but not necessarily the best-educated one. “It could, however, accelerate the decline of many ordinary colleges and universities,” NAS president Peter Wood wrote last year. “That’s because the flood of new students would mean drastically lowered academic standards, a further erosion of the quality of campus life, and an over-abundance of people holding college degrees.”

Most high school graduates are already expected to go to college as the natural next step. That expectation, that college is the right choice for almost everyone—and that the costs incurred will pay for themselves—has led to some alarming trends. Colleges continue to jack up tuition prices, students and their families continue to pay these prices (and go into deep debt), and a college degree means less and less to employers. President Obama himself speaks of another consequence: “In the coming decades, a high school diploma’s not going to be enough.” A high school diploma is already not enough, and it’s precisely because of the mindset Obama is fostering. A college degree is also getting to be “not enough”; young people today must get graduate degrees if they want to stand out.

If President Obama is really concerned about international competition, he should work on raising academic standards, not flooding academia's gates with underqualified students. He should aim to make the United States the best-educated, not the most-educated nation.

In his speech the president called education an economic issue—“the economic issue”—and said that increased access to higher education will be America’s lifeline to pull her out of the recession. He went on to declare that we must cultivate an economy built around “three simple words: Made in America,” and that he aims to double U.S. exports within the next five years. These are worthy goals, but they seem to contradict his other goal about everyone going to college. Must our manufacturers and producers go through the higher education conveyor belt in order to be competent workers? Wouldn't their time and money be better spent if they simply learned on the job, in an apprenticeship, or in some other form of vocational training?

Higher education has become more and more career-focused in recent years, but job training is not its first purpose. Every job has its own training. Higher education should point to that which is truly higher—great truths, great books, great ideas—and should teach students how to think clearly and reason well. These lessons are useful in any vocation, but need not be a prerequisite for all. President Obama seems not to distinguish between job preparation and liberal education; he lumps them together, saying, “Folks need a college degree; they need workforce training; they need a higher education.”

To get students in the door for the mass college education the president envisions, somebody will have to foot the bill. Obama talked at UT about the federal takeover of the student loan industry that got rolled into the health care “reconciliation” bill this spring. NAS president Peter Wood followed this overhaul closely in the days leading up to its passage. In “Obama Loans, Who Collects? The Not-so-Hidden Dangers of Federal Direct Student Lending” he argued that “’Direct Lending’ may well be a cure that is worse than the disease” and showed how it can lead to some ugly federal control over the content of higher education.

In another standing-ovation moment, Obama avowed his commitment to making sure that in America, “no one is denied a chance to go to college” just “because they can’t afford it.” That sounds eerily similar to the concept that led to the housing bubble – that no one should be denied the chance to own a home just because they can’t afford it. Indeed, many commentators are warning that higher education is the next bubble to burst (see chart). If or when that happens, the 2020 goal is going to look a lot less appealing.

Near the closing of his speech, Obama quoted UT’s first president, who said as he dedicated the cornerstones of the original main building, “Smite the rocks with the rod of knowledge, and fountains of unstinted wealth will gush forth.” Obama called this “the promise at the heart of our colleges and universities” and America.

The UT president, George Tayloe Winston, was of course borrowing a metaphor from the Old Testament Bible. In the book of Exodus, the Israelites complain to Moses that they have no water (“Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”). God tells Moses to take his staff and strike the rock at Horeb, from whence water will come for the people to drink. Moses does so. But in the book of Numbers there is an almost identical story with a very different ending. The Israelites complain; God tells Moses to take his staff and speak to the rock, from whence water will pour. Moses instead strikes the rock twice with his staff. God then says to him, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.”

Moses forfeited the promised land when he chose to take things into his own hands. What about “the promise at the heart of our colleges and universities”? Will we forfeit that as our government takes the rod of higher education into its own hands?

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