Obama on Education: Ho-Hum and Hold On

Despite effusive praise from the education establishment – who, let’s be honest, will applaud anything that gets them more money – there was nothing remarkable about the education portion of President Obama’s Not-a-State-of-the-Union address last night.

Surrounded by broad generalities and standard promises to spend more money, the speech’s education centerpiece was arguably the president’s goal that “by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”

This of course begs the question, why is having more college graduates in and of itself so important? The answer is, it isn’t. While economically we want people obtaining whatever knowledge and skills best fit their aptitudes, desires, and the needs of employers, the evidence clearly shows that we already encourage way too many people to pursue higher education. As I lay out in Cato’s new Handbook for Policymakers, the six-year graduation rate for bachelor’s students is hovering at just around 56 percent, literacy levels of degree holders are falling, and remediation rates for students are very high. Indeed, more than a third of college students have to take remedial classes.

So the reality is not that we aren’t pushing people to college. It’s that a large number of them just can’t handle it.

It’s also important to note that we’re not wanting economically for college graduates. As reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 25 percent of all jobs in 2006 required a bachelor’s degree or higher. As of March 2007, nearly 29 percent of Americans ages 25 and older had at least that level of education.

Of course, these numbers don’t tell us whether all those degrees match employer needs – we may have a heck of a lot more English majors than employers require – but that doesn’t matter when the goal is just to get more college graduates. And it also doesn’t matter politically.

For politicians, there is simply little to lose and lots to gain from promising everyone a college education, no matter how wasteful that ends up being.