The Battle of Bunker Hill, Round II: Why Doubling the Size of American Higher Education is a Bad Idea

Peter Wood

The College Board this month issued a dire warning that America is falling behind in the percentage of adults who have college degrees. The College Board’s report, Coming to Our Senses, endorsed by a who’s who of higher education, calls for granting college degrees to at least 55 percent of “young Americans” by 2025. A week after the College Board issued its report, the Carnegie Corporation published a two-page ad in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Boston Globe evoked the same scary picture, this time as the basis for a proposed $40-$45 billion expenditure on higher education infrastructure. The ad was likewise signed by a who’s who of higher education and the argument was that we need new buildings to accommodate the massive expansion that would be required to graduate all those additional students.

Oddly, neither the College Board nor the Carnegie Corporation has bothered to say just how many students. Last week, I tried to work it out using U.S. Census data and other widely available university statistics. There is an obstacle in that the College Board was vague about the goal. Sometimes it was “55 percent of young Americans;” sometimes it suggested the goal was for all Americans; nowhere did it say what ages fit the category of “young Americans"; and in two places, it spoke of Americans aged 25-34.  As I pointed out in Cold Brine, if the goal were to give it to 55 percent of all Americans by 2025, we would have to award approximately 129 million new college degrees in the next 17 years—57 million more than if we continued awarding degrees at the current rate. If we limit ourselves to awarding college degrees to just 55 percent of people who will be age 25-34 in 2025, we will have to award 34 million new college degrees to people in that age bracket in the next 17 years—14.6 million more than we otherwise would. That would be a 75 percent increase for this age cohort. And because it doesn’t include the 18-24 year old cohort just behind it, we are talking about more than doubling of the number of people who now attend college. The number of students who currently attend college (two-year and four-year colleges combined) is about 18 million.   Because a substantial percentage of students who enroll do not complete degrees, to climb up the 55 percent Everest, we would need to enroll something well north of 40 million students at a time. 


I am skeptical of the motives enunciated in the Carnegie Corporation ad, and criticized it yesterday in Asking A Lot.  At the time, I had not seen the news story, A Dent in the Data, on Inside Higher Education, calling into question the validity of the statistics used by both the College Board and the Carnegie Corporation. It seems that the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development upon whose data American researchers were relying for the claim that the percentage of Americans holding college degrees had fallen significantly behind other countries, had made significant errors in calculating “educational attainment by 25-34 year olds.” The “errors don’t radically alter the picture of potential problems in the educational attainment among younger U.S. citizens,” declares Inside Higher Education. But surely they don’t improve one’s confidence in higher education’s collective demand for doubling its size in next 17 years or pouring an additional $40-$45 billion into a crash building program. 

But I am returning to this topic once again not just because the OECD has its shoelaces tied together. Rather, the deeper problem with both Coming to Our Senses and the Carnegie Corporation’s smash-and grab-for-the-billions proposal is that they presume that, with the right level of funding, the United States can propel large numbers of additional black and Hispanic students to college, through college, and all the way to degree completion without first making fundamental changes in American society and culture. The additional 14.6 million students that would be added to the college-degree winning cohort aged 25-34 in 2025 would come, by the College Board’s own admission, entirely from the black and Hispanic population. The Carnegie Corporation repeats the claim. 

The goal is noble, praiseworthy, and perhaps inspiring. It is also based on vapid reasoning and wish-fulfillment. The reason is that nowhere near the numbers of black and Hispanic students will be capable of succeeding in or even willing to attend college in the time horizon these organizations have proposed. They have made no effort to account for the academic achievement gaps between these minority groups and whites and Asians. We see no effort to wrestle with the issues of the disintegration of the black family, the disarray in these communities, the instabilities that result from mass illegal immigration, the epidemic of violence in inner city schools, and a raft of other factors that are far beyond the control of colleges and universities.  

Today the Boston Globe reports on a survey by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University that shows that only 12 percent of students who graduated from Boston high schools in the class of 2000 and who then enrolled in community colleges managed to make it all the way to an associate’s degree. Some details: 

Roxbury Community College fell flat. Of the 101 students from the high school class of 2000 who enrolled in RCC shortly after high school, only 6 percent would go on to earn a diploma there - or anywhere else - by June 2007. Quincy College, a low-profile, two-year college on the South Shore, did comparatively well (but not good enough) by its 62 Boston students, posting a 19 percent graduation rate. Bunker Hill Community College, which drew 155 enrollees from Boston's class of 2000, yielded a 14 percent graduation rate. 

The study “should put an end” to the common rationalization for low community college graduation rates:  that students who start in a community college finish elsewhere. The researcher tracked the students wherever they went.  

Of course, the Boston Globe blames the community colleges:

No one believes that ill-prepared urban students will suddenly cruise through college. But any college that can't help at least half to the finish line needs to reexamine what value it is adding to the educational experience.

Be that as it may, the report is a timely reminder of how divorced from reality are The College Board’s and the Carnegie Corporation’s proposals.  That American society should commit itself to rescuing these students from educational shipwreck I have no doubt. But simply imagining that they can be enrolled in college en masse and succeed is a delusion. The College Board, to be sure, recognizes that work must be done in “early childhood” and K-12 education. “The need to increase the rigor of high school programs” it allows, “has been the dominant cry of the school reform movement of the last decade,” but it takes this in stride and assumes that “university-school-community partnerships” will do the trick. 

The reality is that the College Board and the Carnegie Corporation think we can solve deeply embedded social problems by matriculating ill-prepared and unmotivated students to college in numbers that would simply overwhelm American higher education. If we are worried about international competitiveness, that doesn’t seem a very wise step. Destroying American higher education in a bid to notch up our numbers to a delusory goal of 55 percent won’t help anyone. 

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