Obama Continues Pushing Absurd College Agenda

Americans who weren't fooled by the slick advertising and deceptive posturing of his campaign realized that Barack Obama was going to be a dogmatic authoritarian in office. One thing you can count on with such people is that they won't abandon their pet ideas, no matter the evidence against them.

Barack Obama's notion that the way to increase employment and output is through government "stimulus" spending is one such idea. There never was any reason to believe that, and only die-hard Keynesians persist in this wishful thinking.

Another such idea is his idea that the United States is "falling behind" other nations with regard to college graduation rates, and it's necessary for us to regain "leadership." Obama first raised that idea back in February 2009, and on August 9 of this year, he said exactly the same thing in a speech at the University of Texas.

"In a single generation, we've fallen from first place to 12th place in college graduation rates for young adults," Obama said, a situation he declared to be "unacceptable." To deal with this supposed problem, he has set a national goal of "retaking the lead" by 2020 -- that is, having "a higher share of graduates than any other nation on Earth."

Congress has already given Obama the policies he wants to reach that goal, by increasing Pell Grants and making it easier for students to repay their federal loans. I have argued elsewhere that those changes will have bad consequences; here, I'll show that the core idea, that the country needs more college graduates, is nonsensical.

The first point to observe is that "our" college graduation rate is just a statistical artifact, like "our" home ownership rate and "our" voting rate. To people imbued with a central planning mindset, such statistics betoken national success or failure. In fact, the nation isn't doing anything. Millions of individuals are deciding whether or not to go to college and complete the course of study. Students and parents make those decisions with good (but not necessarily perfect) knowledge of the student's capabilities, the costs of college, and the prospective benefits of doing so.

Therefore, when Obama pronounces America's college graduation rate "unacceptable," he's saying that many of us are making the wrong decision. In an unguarded moment, he might even say that some Americans are behaving "stupidly" (like the Cambridge police) in not choosing to get their college degrees and thereby preventing us from "retaking the lead." On the contrary, there are strong reasons to believe that college education has already been greatly oversold and many of those who have "invested" in it are going to regret their decision.

Obama and his education establishment allies note that on average, people who have college degrees earn a lot more than people who don't. True, but irrelevant. Individuals can't make decisions based on what the average person has experienced; they must make decisions based on what they expect will happen to them.

Some students -- those who are well-prepared for college and intent on learning -- will gain a lot of knowledge from their coursework, knowledge that might turn into a high-paying career. Unfortunately, a large number of young Americans are poorly prepared for college, disengaged from academic work, and mainly interested in college because it can be, as the title of a new book puts it, The Five Year Party.

Even before the current recession, many of those kids wound up employed in low-skill, low-pay "high school" jobs such as cashiers, waiters, theater ushers, postal workers, and so on. Now that we're seemingly stuck in recession, stories like this about young people with college degrees and big debts, but mediocre to poor jobs, are commonplace.

It's important to stress that the phenomenon of college graduates working in jobs that call for only basic skills and trainability is nothing new. In their 1999 book entitled Who's Not Working and Why, economists Frederic Pryor and David Schaffer noted that since 1971, there has been an increasing trend of college graduates taking "high school" jobs. They blamed that on the low standards that prevail at many colleges and universities.

If we already are graduating many young people from college who learn little and will wind up in jobs that most high school kids could do, why should we want more of them?

Many young Americans, especially those who are academically marginal students, correctly see college as a nearly worthless boondoggle costing a lot of scarce time and money. That explains why college enrollment rates are not going up. And if observers like Professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds who say that higher education is our next "bubble" are right, the Obama administration's policy of getting more people through college looks a lot like the last-gasp efforts by Fannie Mae to lure more low-income people into mortgages.

But shouldn't we worry about "falling behind" other countries?

No. We can't magically transform our anemic economy into a powerhouse by scraping the bottom of the barrel to find more disengaged kids to process through our credential factories. The truth is that there is no direct connection between national prosperity and "educational attainment."

That is the crucial point Professor Alison Wolf makes in her eye-opening book Does Education Matter? She demonstrates that it's neither necessary nor sufficient for a growing, prosperous economy for a country to get the maximum number of its citizens through college.

Dragooning more people into college won't give us a better workforce or better jobs. It will only give us more credential inflation as employers demand college degrees for mundane jobs.


It does, however, have some political advantages for the president and his party. Our higher education establishment is one of the most loyal and vigorous supporters of the Democrats and their "progressive" agenda. Putting more kids through college means more money in the pockets of the overwhelmingly leftist administrators and professors. Furthermore, since the intellectual influence on college students is much more apt to drive them toward statism than toward individual liberty and free markets, the more young people go to college, the bigger the voting bloc for leftist candidates.

Just like the notion that federal deficit spending will revive the economy, the idea that getting more young Americans through college will make the country more competitive and prosperous is utterly mistaken. Of course, Obama will never abandon it.

George Leef is Director of of Research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.