Supersizing: Obama's Higher Education Agenda, Part 1 of 8

Peter Wood

The most conspicuous part of President Obama’s agenda for higher education is his plan for gigantic increases in enrollment. Obama announced this goal very early in his term. In February 2009, in a speech to a joint session of Congress he declared, “by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” Translated into actual enrollments, that would mean more than doubling the number of domestic students attending the nation’s colleges and universities.

Last week in Obama’s Higher-Education Agenda I said I would in a series of posts examine the eight majors components of that agenda, and then try to put them together as a whole. His dream of gargantuan expansion comes first both as first-announced and as the foundation for everything else.

The idea of gargantuan expansion did not pop out of the blue. Rather it popped out of the College Board in a report released just before Obama’s inauguration, and it also popped out of a two-page ad that appeared in The New York TimesThe Washington Post, and The Boston Globe in December 2008. The College Board report, Coming to Our Senses: Education and the American Future, called for granting college degrees to at least 55 percent of “young Americans” by 2025. The “young Americans” qualifier is important. This was a summons not for more more adult and continuing post-secondary education, but for a radical increase in college education for those under age 35. And it wasn’t just a call for increased enrollments, but for actual graduates.

The proposal was—there is no finer word for it—nuts.

As I pointed out at the time, in Cold Brine and The Battle of Bunker Hill, if you sat down and did the calculations on the basis of census data and actual enrollments, to grant 55 percent of young Americans college degrees by 2025 would mean awarding 129 million college degrees between 2009 and 2025—57 million more than would have been awarded at 2008 rates. Even if you think that is a good idea, American colleges and universities had then and still do not have anything like the capacity to accomplish it. To get there, colleges would need to more than double their enrollments and sustain them at that higher level. How many colleges and universities could have done that starting in 2009?

And how many today, after the Great Recession and steep cutbacks at many state universities, could contemplate doing it today?


I sat down with one of the people who signed the College Board report at one point and asked him if he accepted the approximate validity of my calculations. He said he did. Then I asked him how he could then justify signing off on a call for such an impractical goal. His answer: “It was aspirational.”

“Aspirational” as in self-deluding or as in publicly deceptive?

There are, of course, artful ways to finesse the idea. We could consider the award of associate degrees as satisfying the goal of college degrees for 55 percent of young people. And we could shift vast numbers of students into online-mostly and online-only programs. And we could do the educational equivalent of inflating the money supply by lowering academic standards and making the attainment of college degrees much much easier.

All three of those approaches are now in play, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

In addition to the senseless Coming to Our Senses report from the College Board, the holiday season in 2008 brought that big newsprint buy to convey a similar idea. It was presented as “An Open Letter to President-Elect Obama,” and it was a none-too-subtle reminder that he better ‘dance with the one who brung him.’ Higher Education had done a lot to help Obama win the election and Higher Education expected a lot in return. “Higher Education” in this case meant the 52 signatories, including heads of numerous universities and education associations gathered under the auspices of the Carnegie Corporation. In Asking a Lot, I critiqued the ad. It called not just for much higher enrollment, but for the president to direct $40- to $45-billion of the coming stimulus package to build or improve “higher education facilities.”

I Don’t Like Being 16th

So Obama’s February 2009 speech to the joint session of Congress came by way of a reply. Higher Education, in effect, had enunciated what it wanted as payout for the political support it had provided during the campaign, and President Obama was announcing his intention to deliver.

How’s that worked out?

Not so well really. Impossible promises often turn out to be rather difficult to fulfill.

Moreover, even the President’s extravagant goal that “by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world,” fell well short of what the great thinkers behind Coming to Our Senses sought. The Lumina Foundation has been particularly vociferous in calling for even more extravagant numbers of college graduates. It trumpets “The Big Goal“ of “60 percent by the year 2025.”

I feel a bit sorry for president Obama on this. It is difficult to pander to utopians. You offer them a castle in the air and they demand a still bigger castle, in higher earth orbit.

But let’s come back to solid ground. The reason president Obama gives for wanting to supersize college-graduation rates is always the same: We need to do this for the sake of national competitiveness. It didn’t stop with his February 2009 speech.

On March 4, 2011, speaking at Miami Central High School, he repeated:

With all of these steps, I am confident that by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. That’s our goal. That’s our goal. (Applause.) That’s how we’ll out-educate other countries. That’s how we’ll out-compete with other countries tomorrow. That’s how we’ll win the future for the United States of America.

On July 18, 2011, at the Education roundtable, he intoned:

A world-class education is the single most important factor in determining not just whether our kids can compete for the best jobs but whether America can out-compete countries around the world. America’s business leaders understand that when it comes to education, we need to up our game. That’s why we’re working together to put an outstanding education within reach for every child.

And in his September 28, 2011 Back-to-school speech, the president declared:

One of the biggest challenges we have right now is that too many of our young people enroll in college but don’t actually end up getting their degree, and as a consequence — our country used to have the world’s highest proportion of young people with a college degree; we now rank 16th. I don’t like being 16th. I like being number one. That’s not good enough. So we’ve got to use — we’ve got to make sure your generation gets us back to the top of having the most college graduates relative to the population of any country on Earth.

Educational Attainment—the International Perspective

But does having the highest percent of college graduates among the nations have any particular connection to economic competitiveness? That’s really the question we need to answer. Clearly an advanced economy needs a critical mass of engineers, doctors, teachers, scientists, and experts in various fields that involve a high level of education. We even need a certain number of lawyers. But recognizing we need college graduates does not necessarily mean more is better; or that “most” is best.

To be the nation with “highest proportion of college graduates in the world” sounds grand, but is actually rather vague. What nation is now in that position? When President Obama said it in February 2009 the best available data from the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) said it was Russia, which as of 2003 claimed that 54 percent of its population aged 25-64 had college degrees, compared to the U.S. at 38 percent. The Russian Federation wasn’t then and isn’t now a towering economic power or a dynamo of intellectual and industrial creativity, but lots of its citizens have college degrees.

In 2010, the OECD released a new report, Education at a Glance 2010, based on a substantially different methodology. It changed a lot of the results and the rankings. (See Chart A1. 3a. on page 36.) Russia still topped the rankings at 54 percent for data as of 2008 for the population aged 25-64. No other country came close. Canada was ranked second at 49 percent. The U.S. came in at 41 percent, behind Israel (44 percent) and Japan (43 percent).

The rankings look dramatically different for the age cohort 25-34. Russia ties with Japan (at 55 percent) and falls behind Korea (58 percent), and Canada (56 percent); and the U.S. (42 percent) ties with Australia, Belgium, and Israel, and fades behind Denmark (43 percent), Ireland (45 percent), New Zealand (48 percent), and Norway (46 percent).

The comparisons are revealing, but not necessarily in a way that fits Obama’s or Higher Education’s preferred narrative.

The nation’s strongest economy, the United States: 41 percent of 25-to-64-year-olds

Economic powerhouse Switzerland: only 34 percent

Europe’s strongest economy, Germany: a woeful 25 percent

In the doldrums for two decades, Japan: still beats us at 43 percent

And energy-rich but economically weak Russia, still at 54 percent

The most fascinating aspect of these figures is the story they refuse to tell. Squeeze them as you will, they refuse to divulge any straightforward correlation between the percent of the population holding college degrees and the nation’s prosperity or its international competitiveness. Would we want to trade the economic prospects of the U.S. for those of Russia, Korea, Israel, Japan, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Ireland, New Zealand, or Australia?

And with that, President Obama’s main argument for massive increases in college enrollments, graduation rates, and percentage of Americans holding college degrees simply collapses. So too do the arguments of the Coming to Our Senses folk, the Lumina Foundation, and the vast choruses of academics who have repeated these points for the last four years as though they were manifestly true.

In some cases, these nations have very bright prospects and higher education is clearly a component in the mix of factors that contribute to material prosperity. But the matter is far more complicated than a simple correlation of prosperity with the gross “percentage of population” possessing college diplomas. It matters profoundly what students actually learn and how this capital can be mobilized. A nation can indeed have too many engineers, too many lawyers, too many finance experts, just as it can have too many sociologists and too many community organizers. Creating an all-purpose incentive for increasing the numbers of college graduates without regard for what they learn or how it matches their economic prospects is a serious mistake.

Beyond Prosperity

Let me anticipate those who are itching to reply something to the effect: “Economic competitiveness isn’t the real reason we want everyone to go to college. The true goal is human fulfillment. We want people to go to college because education is an intrinsic good.”

I am skeptical of this argument too. Human fulfillment is not identical to attaining a college degree. But be that as it may, I am writing here about President Obama’s policy objectives in higher education, and President Obama has justified his goal for massive expansion in college enrollments not as soulcraft but as a means to national prosperity. Taken on its own terms, his argument fails.

Who Pays?

The President’s dream of making the United States by 2020 the nation with the highest percentage of college graduates is doubtful in many ways. One of them is that is that the cost of American higher education has spiraled beyond the reach of many Americans to pay for it. That brings us to the next part of Obama’s higher-education agenda: limiting college tuition. I’ll take that up in the next installment of this series.

This article first appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on February 15, 2012.

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