Monday, March 05, 2012

Sending more students to college doesn't necessarily improve the economy

In response to President Obama's call to double the number of students going to college Peter Wood explains in Supersizing: Obama’s Higher Education Agenda why merely increasing the number of college graduates doesn't help the economy.  He starts with:

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?

later in his column he writes:

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.

 I am all for higher education, but Peter Woods is right merely sending more people to college is not a magic bullet for improving the economy.

Hat tip: Instapundit

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