College for All?
The college-educated share of America’s population has barely increased in years. The key to reviving mass higher education may be to rethink the divide between high school and college.
It would have been understandable if President Barack Obama had ignored education in his first speech to Congress. There were other things to worry about in February 2009: an economy in free fall, health care costs threatening to bankrupt the federal government, a nation bleeding in two protracted foreign wars. Obama had said little about education on the campaign trail. Yet when he took the podium, he made a bold declaration: By 2020, America would regain its historical international lead in college attainment.
Months earlier, Bill Gates had announced a similar priority for his charitable foundation, the richest on the planet. After years of focusing on improving education for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, the Microsoft billionaire had set his sights on college. As would Obama, he called for a major increase in the number of adults with college degrees. Together, the most powerful man in the world and one of the richest created a rare moment of purpose and clarity in American education policy.
But effecting a major increase in college attainment is a daunting task. The percentage of American working-age adults who have graduated from college has hovered around 40 percent for years, with roughly 30 percent holding four-year degrees and another 10 percent associate’s degrees. Obama and Gates were calling for a rise in the college attainment rate to nearly 60 percent in less than a generation, even though many public colleges and universities were already bursting at the seams, and cash-strapped state legislatures were handing down further punishing budget cuts.
Moreover, to succeed in college, students need to get a decent high school education. Many don’t. Dropout rates in urban high schools are catastrophic. And while 70 percent of the nation’s 3.3 million high school graduates go directly to two- or four-year colleges every year, and still more enroll by their mid-twenties, less than half of all students are exposed to a legitimate college preparatory curriculum in high school.
Such harsh realities have led a growing number of critics to question the realism and wisdom of the new college attainment agenda. Some don’t believe that the economy can absorb a huge influx of degree holders. That argument has been heard before. In the 1970s, Harvard economist Richard Freeman, author of The Overeducated American (1976), landed in People magazine and on the front page of The New York Times with his prediction that a glut of degree-bearing workers would lead to falling wages for college graduates.
Instead, wages of college-educated workers rose dramatically relative to those of less educated Americans over the following decade. In the mid-1970s, graduates earned about 40 percent more than people with high school diplomas. The gap has relentlessly widened since then and stands near 100 percent today. In fact, college graduates are the only category of workers whose real pay has increased since 1979.
A more controversial argument against wider higher education comes from Charles Murray, coauthor of the controversial Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994). Murray, who believes that intelligence is strongly determined by genes, contends that “no more than 20 percent” of the population, and probably closer to 10 percent, has sufficient intelligence to earn a legitimate four-year college degree. Internet billionaire Peter Thiel, meanwhile, not only warns of a dangerous higher education “bubble” but is paying a bounty to a select group of talented young people who have agreed to drop out of college to pursue entrepreneurial ventures.
Yet there is strong evidence that America needs more people to earn college degrees, not fewer. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has projected that if current trends continue, the nation will produce three million fewer college graduates by 2018 than the labor market will require. That’s because the economy continues to reorganize itself in ways that favor people with the knowledge and skills that college degrees represent. As economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz have argued, America’s economic dominance during the 20th century stemmed in significant part from educational investments that began in the 19th century. “The nation that invested the most in education,” they wrote, “was the nation that had the highest level of per capita income.”