Professor Obama's College Completion Fixation

Vice President Biden recently unveiled the Department of Education's shiny new "College Completion Tool Kit" booklet, requesting $64 million for the "Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education for FY 2011."  Although the request seems modest by federal government standards, the Fund will add to the hodgepodge of billion dollar programs at Education and Labor that already devote part of their budgets to "investing" in college completion.

The genesis of the College Completion Fund is all too familiar: the government identifies a problem, in this case, a) the jobs of the future require increasing levels of education, and b) rather than leading the world, the United States is ninth among nations in college graduation rates because, as a White House press release warns, students "dropout [sic] in [sic] college." And if you drop out of college, you might never learn that "dropout" is a noun.

The White House leans heavily on a prediction in a report from Georgetown University titled Help Wanted: "by 2018 we [will] end up with a shortfall of workers with Associate's degrees or better of about 3 million." Georgetown projects the following educational needs (as a percentage of the prime age workforce):
           
  2007 2018
 Master's Degree or Better
 11% 10%
 Bachelor's Degree
 21% 23%
 Associate's Degree
 10% 12%
 Some College, No Degree
 17% 17%

The two upper categories therefore increase marginally from 32% to 33% of the workforce, with the need for advanced degrees declining; associate's degrees from community colleges will be in greater need, and the demand for those with some college remains steady.

The government then proposes to solve this perceived problem with federal guidance to state university systems and a $20 million grants program to universities who come up with "innovative" ways to increase graduation rates.  Specifically, the Veep announces: "The President has set a clear goal: By 2020, America will have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world"; we must set a "national goal to increase by 50 percent the number of Americans with a postsecondary certificate, credential, or degree by 2020."

A number of criticisms can be raised. For one, the problem might be misdiagnosed. The Georgetown report opens by dismissing more optimistic predictions from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; the Executive Branch therefore has chosen to overlook figures from its own Department of Labor. A second source, a report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, titled "Pathways to Prosperity," questions whether "Georgetown has over-estimated demand for post-secondary credentials." Even if we accept Georgetown's figures, according to their report the workforce will add 23.5 million new graduates, or a 45% increase over today's 52 million -- with no increased federal intervention. The President's 50% goal (adding 26.1 million) works out to an increase of roughly 3 million graduates, in line with the Georgetown assessment. A 50% increase however sounds dramatic -- something that could only be accomplished by a moon-mission federal program. In reality 3 million is a 4.4% gap, which might a) be within Georgetown's margin of error, b) easily filled by market forces when individuals observe the benefits of education and make decisions to pursue a degree, or c) filled by private industry training programs.

Secondly, consider the dire warning that the U.S. has fallen to 9th place in the college graduate listings. The Administration takes it on face value that 9th place is bad, and 1st place is good. The title of the Harvard report stresses what is more essential: finding a "pathway to prosperity." Of the eight nations above us, only Norway has a higher standard of living as measured by per capita income. Other nations above us include the Russian Federation, with a 55% college graduation rate and a per capita PPP of $15,801, 51st place, compared to the U.S. per capita PPP of $47,123, 6thTunisia (PPP $9,488, 82nd place) offers free college education, which has resulted in one of the world's highest college graduation rates of 57%. (It does not appear on the list because it is not part of the OECD.) Unfortunately unemployment among Tunisian college graduates is 45%, creating an explosive political situation -- a warning about the danger of mindlessly promoting college degrees that are not matched to the labor market.

On the solution side of the ledger, our educational system has no shortage of bureaucrats at local and state levels. It's a safe bet that solutions proposed in this new program will not be innovative in the slightest and will simply pump more money into the mid-level education bureaucracies that have exploded in the last decades, funding more federal grant writers and federal administrators to supervise state administrators who supervise university administrators. Pursuing a college education is a decision made by millions of individuals, who must weigh the earnings sacrificed and debt incurred against other options. Why does the federal government have to insert itself in these decisions?

Next, Georgetown predicts a greater need for two-year college graduates, and although Obama has paid lip service to community colleges, his "college for all" campaign and the College Completion Fund are slanted toward increasing the number of four-year college graduates. A major focus of his efforts is the "some college, no degree" group, which he characterizes negatively as "college dropouts." Georgetown acknowledges the role of this group in our economy; when the authors state that "by 2018, about two-thirds of all employment will require some college education or better," this figure -- actually 62% -- includes the "no degree" group. Pushing 17% of the workforce into unneeded bachelor's degree programs is no way to Win the Future.

The Harvard study concurs:

A narrowly defined "college for all" goal-one that does not include a much stronger focus on career-oriented programs that lead to occupational credentials-seems doomed to fail...We place far too much emphasis on a single pathway to success: attending and graduating from a four-year college.

An article by Richard Vedder in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled "The Great College-Degree Scam" argues that the "push to increase the number of college graduates seems horribly misguided from a strict economic/vocational perspective," noting increasing numbers of college graduates working as waiters and cashiers.

American universities still are the world's best, but a distressing percentage of college students waste four years in politically correct "studies" departments, which offer no training for jobs requiring technical skills. The recent book Academically Adrift reports the startling statistic that 45% of college graduates "demonstrate no significant improvement in a range of skills" after four years of college.

One final motivation for Obama's enthusiasm for increasing college graduation: the leftist political climate in American universities -- hostile to manufacturing, natural resource extraction and "the money making industry" -- makes an ideal training ground for future Democrat voters who will fill the government jobs Obama hopes to create. The President probably isn't kept awake at night by the fear that our educational system won't provide enough underwater welders for offshore oil rigs.
Vice President Biden recently unveiled the Department of Education's shiny new "College Completion Tool Kit" booklet, requesting $64 million for the "Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education for FY 2011."  Although the request seems modest by federal government standards, the Fund will add to the hodgepodge of billion dollar programs at Education and Labor that already devote part of their budgets to "investing" in college completion.

The genesis of the College Completion Fund is all too familiar: the government identifies a problem, in this case, a) the jobs of the future require increasing levels of education, and b) rather than leading the world, the United States is ninth among nations in college graduation rates because, as a White House press release warns, students "dropout [sic] in [sic] college." And if you drop out of college, you might never learn that "dropout" is a noun.

The White House leans heavily on a prediction in a report from Georgetown University titled Help Wanted: "by 2018 we [will] end up with a shortfall of workers with Associate's degrees or better of about 3 million." Georgetown projects the following educational needs (as a percentage of the prime age workforce):
           
  2007 2018
 Master's Degree or Better
 11% 10%
 Bachelor's Degree
 21% 23%
 Associate's Degree
 10% 12%
 Some College, No Degree
 17% 17%

The two upper categories therefore increase marginally from 32% to 33% of the workforce, with the need for advanced degrees declining; associate's degrees from community colleges will be in greater need, and the demand for those with some college remains steady.

The government then proposes to solve this perceived problem with federal guidance to state university systems and a $20 million grants program to universities who come up with "innovative" ways to increase graduation rates.  Specifically, the Veep announces: "The President has set a clear goal: By 2020, America will have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world"; we must set a "national goal to increase by 50 percent the number of Americans with a postsecondary certificate, credential, or degree by 2020."

A number of criticisms can be raised. For one, the problem might be misdiagnosed. The Georgetown report opens by dismissing more optimistic predictions from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; the Executive Branch therefore has chosen to overlook figures from its own Department of Labor. A second source, a report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, titled "Pathways to Prosperity," questions whether "Georgetown has over-estimated demand for post-secondary credentials." Even if we accept Georgetown's figures, according to their report the workforce will add 23.5 million new graduates, or a 45% increase over today's 52 million -- with no increased federal intervention. The President's 50% goal (adding 26.1 million) works out to an increase of roughly 3 million graduates, in line with the Georgetown assessment. A 50% increase however sounds dramatic -- something that could only be accomplished by a moon-mission federal program. In reality 3 million is a 4.4% gap, which might a) be within Georgetown's margin of error, b) easily filled by market forces when individuals observe the benefits of education and make decisions to pursue a degree, or c) filled by private industry training programs.

Secondly, consider the dire warning that the U.S. has fallen to 9th place in the college graduate listings. The Administration takes it on face value that 9th place is bad, and 1st place is good. The title of the Harvard report stresses what is more essential: finding a "pathway to prosperity." Of the eight nations above us, only Norway has a higher standard of living as measured by per capita income. Other nations above us include the Russian Federation, with a 55% college graduation rate and a per capita PPP of $15,801, 51st place, compared to the U.S. per capita PPP of $47,123, 6thTunisia (PPP $9,488, 82nd place) offers free college education, which has resulted in one of the world's highest college graduation rates of 57%. (It does not appear on the list because it is not part of the OECD.) Unfortunately unemployment among Tunisian college graduates is 45%, creating an explosive political situation -- a warning about the danger of mindlessly promoting college degrees that are not matched to the labor market.

On the solution side of the ledger, our educational system has no shortage of bureaucrats at local and state levels. It's a safe bet that solutions proposed in this new program will not be innovative in the slightest and will simply pump more money into the mid-level education bureaucracies that have exploded in the last decades, funding more federal grant writers and federal administrators to supervise state administrators who supervise university administrators. Pursuing a college education is a decision made by millions of individuals, who must weigh the earnings sacrificed and debt incurred against other options. Why does the federal government have to insert itself in these decisions?

Next, Georgetown predicts a greater need for two-year college graduates, and although Obama has paid lip service to community colleges, his "college for all" campaign and the College Completion Fund are slanted toward increasing the number of four-year college graduates. A major focus of his efforts is the "some college, no degree" group, which he characterizes negatively as "college dropouts." Georgetown acknowledges the role of this group in our economy; when the authors state that "by 2018, about two-thirds of all employment will require some college education or better," this figure -- actually 62% -- includes the "no degree" group. Pushing 17% of the workforce into unneeded bachelor's degree programs is no way to Win the Future.

The Harvard study concurs:

A narrowly defined "college for all" goal-one that does not include a much stronger focus on career-oriented programs that lead to occupational credentials-seems doomed to fail...We place far too much emphasis on a single pathway to success: attending and graduating from a four-year college.

An article by Richard Vedder in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled "The Great College-Degree Scam" argues that the "push to increase the number of college graduates seems horribly misguided from a strict economic/vocational perspective," noting increasing numbers of college graduates working as waiters and cashiers.

American universities still are the world's best, but a distressing percentage of college students waste four years in politically correct "studies" departments, which offer no training for jobs requiring technical skills. The recent book Academically Adrift reports the startling statistic that 45% of college graduates "demonstrate no significant improvement in a range of skills" after four years of college.

One final motivation for Obama's enthusiasm for increasing college graduation: the leftist political climate in American universities -- hostile to manufacturing, natural resource extraction and "the money making industry" -- makes an ideal training ground for future Democrat voters who will fill the government jobs Obama hopes to create. The President probably isn't kept awake at night by the fear that our educational system won't provide enough underwater welders for offshore oil rigs.