China Syndrome

Higher education policy is being driven by the assumption that to compete in the global economy, especially against burgeoning powerhouses like China, the United States will need a lot more college graduates. It’s the foundation of President Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative, and the ivory tower’s justification for demanding ever more taxpayer dollars.

Ironically, China itself illustrates the pitfalls of having the government set education policies based on predictions for the future. Several sources have reported unrest among Chinese college students and recent graduates, whose unhappiness appears to have a single underlying cause. From today’s New York Times:

In 1998 the government encouraged a vast expansion in college-level education. Hundreds of new colleges were founded almost overnight to accommodate millions of new students thought to be needed as engineers, bankers, traders and marketing experts in the fast-growing economy.

So what happened?

The number of college graduates has multiplied fivefold in the last seven years, to an estimated 4.1 million this year. But at least 60 percent of that number are having trouble finding jobs, according to the National Development and Reform Commission….

As I wrote in a recent op-ed, don’t believe the hype: Special interests and politicians will try to scare you about the future economy in order to take your money. But as China itself has shown, the only thing we can predict with any reliability is that the government’s predictions will almost certainly be wrong.