November 2, 2009 1:58PM

If China Jumped Off A Bridge, Would We Do It Too?

Everyone has heard that China is leaving us in its dust when it comes to producing college graduates, and if we don’t do something drastic to catch up they’ll crush us economically as well. Indeed, it’s a driving force behind efforts to ramp up federal higher education intervention.

As President Obama proclaimed when introducing his American Graduation Initiative, which is now part of the ironically titled Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act:

By 2020, this nation will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.…Already we’ve increased Pell grants by $500. We’ve created a $2,500 tax credit for four years of college tuition. We’ve simplified student aid applications.…A new GI Bill of Rights…is beginning to help soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan to begin a new life — in a new economy. And the recovery plan has helped close state budget shortfalls…at the same time making historic investments in school libraries and classrooms and facilities all across America. So we’ve already taken some steps that are building the foundation for a 21st century education system…one that will allow us to compete with China and India and everybody else all around the world. 

Now, while a college education could furnish important learning that helps drive innovation and economic development, it could also be as worthless as conferring a bachelor’s degree on a dog. What’s important is that people actually learn things of value, not simply that they get degrees. But a funny thing happened in China…

Yesterday, news broke that China’s top education official has been sacked. Reports the New York Times:

Facing rising criticism over the quality of schools and a crush of jobless college graduates, China’s legislature announced Monday that it had removed the minister of education after six years on the job and replaced him with a deputy.

China has been cranking out college graduates at a breakneak pace, but the quality of the education has become highly suspect and, perhaps more importantly, there haven’t been nearly enough jobs to employ all the newly credentialed. In other words, simply producing more graduates — no matter how much it has frightened some people in America — has largely been a waste.

The obvious lesson from this should be that it’s foolish to simply make massively expanding the ranks of degree holders a national goal. But that doesn’t compute for many U.S. politicians, despite abundant evidence that we don’t need heaps more graduates anymore than China does. It’s getting elected that matters most to politicians, and as long as voters keep believing that government is opening the door to the middle class simply by pushing more and more people to college, politicians will keep wasting taxpayer dollars on unnecessary degrees.

So let’s hope that both voters and politicians will learn China’s clear college lesson: Fixating on degrees is not very smart. Failing that, let’s hope that we at least don’t have any rioting…