Ask random members of the professoriate at my alma mater, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and many will confide that too many people—not too few, as recently suggested by President Barack Obama—are attending college these days. This opinion is impolite and impolitic (perhaps, in the context of the American university, we should say "un-PC"). But years of furtive conversation with academics suggest it is commonly held. And one can see why. To the professor with expertise in Austro-Hungarian history, for instance, it is unclear why his survey course on the casus foederis of World War I is a necessary stop in a management-level job training program at Hertz.
This is not to say that some Americans should be discouraged from participating in a liberal arts education. As the social scientist Charles Murray writes in his book Real Education, "Saying 'too many people are going to college' is not the same as saying that the average student does not need to know about history, science, and great works of art, music, and literature. They do need to know—and to know more than they are currently learning. So let's teach it to them, but let's not wait for college to do it."
Take this bullet point, proudly included in a November 2008 press release from the Boston public school system: "Of the [Boston public school] graduates from the Class of 2000 who enrolled in college (1,904), 35.5 percent (675 students) earned a degree within seven years of high school graduation. An additional 14 percent (267 students) were still enrolled and working toward a degree." In a news conference celebrating these dismal numbers, Mayor Tom Menino called for a "100 percent increase" in the number of city students attending college, though offered no suggestions on how to ensure that those students actually graduate or are properly prepared to handle undergraduate studies. Besides, if 14 percent of those enrolled are still ambling towards a degree after eight years, is Menino convinced that the pursuit of a university education was the right decision for these students, rather than, say, vocational training?
Alas, these numbers are not uncommon. (They're often worse in other major American cities.) Citing a recent study by two education experts at Harvard University, former Secretary of Education Margret Spellings sighed, "The report shows that two-thirds of our nation's students leave high school unprepared to even apply to a four-year college." Nevertheless, a huge number of these students are matriculating to four-year universities, incurring mountains of debt, and never finishing their degrees.
The devalued undergraduate degree is one thing when the people doing the devaluing have privately financed their education. It is quite another when the federal government foots the bill. While America debates the merits of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the nationalization of General Motors, and how to fix a broken health care system, the Obama administration has been quietly planning a massive expansion of the Pell Grant program, "making it an entitlement akin to Medicare and Social Security." Read that sentence again. As we spiral deeper into recession and debt, our dear leaders in Washington are considering the creation of a massive entitlement akin to the expensive, inefficient, and failing Medicare and Social Security programs. ...
Read the rest here. As someone with an Ivy League education and three degrees, I certainly support higher education, but to state the apparently not so obvious, college ain't the right choice for everyone.
And imagine Boston's mayor celebrating the fact that only one in three Boston public school students who enrolled in college had gotten a degree after seven years, and thinking that the answer is to encourage more of them to go to college. Sigh.