June 12, 2012

Let’s resume the debate over who should go to college. Some weeks ago, I wrote a column arguing that the “college for all” philosophy is a major blunder of educational policy.

Its defects, as I outlined them, include:

● The lowering of college entrance requirements, except at elite schools (in 2008, about 20 percent of four-year schools had “open admissions” policies, meaning that virtually anyone with a high-school diploma could get in).

● The dumbing down of college standards (one study I cited found that about a third of college seniors hadn’t improved their analytical skills).

● Much human and financial waste — the dropout rate at four-year schools is roughly 40 percent, and many of these students leave with large debts.

● A monolithic focus on the college track in high school that ignores the real-life needs of millions of students who either won’t start or won’t finish college and would benefit more from vocational programs.

Naturally, this critique didn’t please the barons of higher education. One of them — William Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland — penned a long rebuttal [“Not college for all, but college for more”], which ran in The Washington Post June 8.

Let me summarize Kirwan’s arguments and show why they’re wrong.

For starters, he says my premise is a straw man. “Those who are serious about education policy have never proposed anything remotely close to 100 percent college attendance or college completion,” he writes.

This is true — but also irrelevant and misleading. It’s correct that education experts have rarely, if ever, suggested that everyone would go to college. But they’ve created a climate in which going to college is the main or only standard of success in high school. If you don’t go to college, you’re judged second-rate and a failure. From students’ perspective, college-for-all is the reigning ethos. And it’s the students, not the experts, who matter most.

Here’s Kirwan’s own mushy standard of who should go: “All kids who want to go to college and are capable of handling college-level work (should) have the opportunity to do so.” The trouble is that many students incapable of doing college-level work — even with diluted standards — are already going. The proof of this lies not only in high dropout rates but also in remedial classes, mostly in English and math, required of many freshmen. For freshmen in 2007, 36 percent took at least one remedial class, reports the Department of Education.

Next, Kirwan asserts that a more technologically advanced society requires a more skilled workforce, and a more skilled workforce means more years of schooling. For Maryland, he says, “economists tell us that by 2020, 60 percent of jobs will require at least a two-year or four-year degree.” Well, maybe Maryland is dramatically different from the rest of the country or maybe this statistic is questionable. Whatever, it does not reflect the national situation.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that only 20 percent of U.S. jobs require a bachelor’s degree or more. About another 10 percent require some post-high school instruction, including an associate’s degree. Against this need, the United States is already producing a workforce with about 30 percent holding a bachelor’s degree and another 10 percent with an associate’s degree.

Here are the BLS’ detailed numbers for 2010: 3.1 percent of jobs required a professional degree (law, medicine) or a Ph.D.; 1.4 percent, a master’s degree; 15.5 percent, a bachelor’s degree; 5.6 percent, an associate’s degree; and 5.2 percent, some schooling beyond high school, including some college. The grand total: 30.8 percent. Projecting ahead to 2020, the BLS concluded that these jobs would grow slightly faster than all jobs but would still represent only 31.6 percent of the total.

Put differently: More than two-thirds of jobs would require a high-school diploma or less. These include retail sales workers (4.3 million in 2010), truck drivers (1.6 million), cashiers (3.4 million), teachers’ assistants (1.3 million) and waiters and waitresses (2.3 million). For these students, the crying need is for high school to give them a solid foundation in basic knowledge and skills.

Finally, Kirwan warns that we’re losing the international educational sweepstakes: Among 25- to 34-year-olds, the United States’ 41 percent of post-high school degree holders ranks only 14th. This is, he says, a formula for failure in today’s “innovation-centered, globally connected world.” Sounds convincing. It isn’t.

Successful economies result from many sources, not just an educated workforce, though that’s important. Other crucial influences include flexible markets, management competence, work ethic, government policies and an entrepreneurial culture. Some robust economies have workforces with a much smaller share of college degree-holders than the United States: Germany’s rate is 26 percent. Some other countries with higher rates (Japan: 56 percent) are floundering. And some with higher rates (Russia: 55 percent) lag well behind the United States economically.

What matters is the quality of our graduates — at both the high school and college levels — as much as their quantity. Here is where Kirwan is virtually silent. Nowhere does he mention tougher standards for colleges. Nowhere does he acknowledge that we are shortchanging millions of high school students for whom the college track ignores their needs. These students receive a poor high-school education and are unprepared for the adult world of work.

Vocational education is controversial, because it smacks of channeling poor and minority students into lower-paying jobs. It looks bad. But in the real world, many of these non-college jobs — car mechanics, welders, plumbers, machinists — pay well. Moreover, the alternative is to condemn students to courses that bore them and disengage them from school altogether. Designing vocational programs that motivate students to learn and help connect them with the job market is a daunting task. But the main obstacle is a college-for-all mindset that, in the end, discriminates against the very students it’s supposed to help.

It’s rank hypocrisy that justifies Kirwan’s solution — and that of President Obama: Send more students to college and proclaim a target of having 55 percent to 60 percent of the population hold some sort of college degree, up from today’s roughly 40 percent. This would compound all the flaws of the current system. It would cost billions — money we don’t have — to disappoint more students with degrees they don’t need and probably will never get, while saddling them with debt they can’t repay.