Our College Graduation Rate Doesn’t Matter

In his January 29 Forum piece, Peter Sacks says that I engaged in “nitpicking” in a blog post expressing disdain for President Obama’s higher education agenda. He’s free to call my skeptical view about federal initiatives to lower the costs of college whatever he wants. But in my opinion, it is naive to believe politicians (not just Obama) when they claim that they are going to make any good or service less costly. That’s just glittering rhetoric. Mr. Sacks does raise some important issues in his piece, however and I’d like to address them. First, he reiterates the position he took in our Jan. 11 debate, contending that the fact that the U.S. has been “slipping” compared with other countries in college graduation percentages is worrisome. He avers that the nation is losing “billions of dollars in potential economic returns” because lots of young Americans don’t graduate from college. In our debate, I took aim at that notion by citing Professor Alison Wolf’s excellent book Does Education Matter?. In my opening statement, I noted that her book has been ignored by the higher education establishment because her conclusions are uncongenial to the conventional wisdom that the more formal education people have, the better. Her strongly-supported argument is that government “investments” in higher education are neither necessary nor sufficient for a vibrant economy. I encourage Minding the Campus readers to digest Wolf’s book (subtitled Myths about Education and Economic Growth) before they assent to the proposition that we are losing productivity because we don’t have a higher college graduation rate. If you don’t have time for Professor Wolf’s book, however, I’ll explain briefly why our college graduation rate doesn’t matter. The reason is that little of what people need to know for their work careers comes from classroom studies. We have a lot of very successful people in America who didn’t graduate from college. We also have a much larger number of people who have college degrees (sometimes advanced degrees) who nevertheless struggle in low-paying jobs. We know that many who go through college don’t learn much and even if they do, they are apt to discover that the best employment they can find is work that high school students could do. There is no transmission mechanism that causes employers to create more high-paying jobs just because we “produce” more college graduates. I agree with Sacks’ that we need to “reframe the nation’s strategic position,” but disagree on how to go about that. The best strategy for the United States is a great depoliticization. What I mean by that is to lessen or entirely remove politics from a wide range of endeavors – housing, medical care, the allocation of capital, energy, and last but not least, education. Political decision-making tends to be short-sighted and swayed by special interest groups. Policies with concentrated but visible benefits often are enacted even though they create far greater (but often unseen) costs. Limited resources are squandered on projects that people wouldn’t spend their own money on. America’s “competitive advantage” has never been that we put more people through college than other countries. It was that we had less government control over people’s lives and property than other countries.

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George Leef

George Leef is Director of Research for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

One thought on “Our College Graduation Rate Doesn’t Matter”

  1. Will the 9/11 GI Bill cover tuition for a foreign degree program taken by distance learning? The school is accredited. Leicester University in UK.

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