Michelle Obama: Get Thee to College

Michelle Obama would like more students to attend college.  In a speech on November 12, which was immediately recognized by the media as a major shift in policy emphasis, Mrs. Obama told students at a Washington, D.C. high school that the administration would work hard to increase the number of low-income students who pursue college degrees.   Mrs. Obama also revived the President’s call to make the United States the nation with the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by 2020.  President Obama made this goal part of his first major address to Congress back in February 2009.

Meanwhile, it seems that young people are growing more hesitant about “investing” in a college education.  The same day that Michelle was emphasizing to the students at Bell Multicultural High School that “my story can be your story,” the New York Times ruminated about a College Board/National Journal poll that showed that “more than half of 18- to 29-year-olds…said a college degree was not needed to be successful.”

The Times’ article by “Economic Scene” columnist Eduardo Porter quickly set the record straight. “Workers with a bachelor’s degree still earn almost twice as much as high school graduates.” But claims like this come increasingly with qualifications.  Not so long ago, reporters blithely cited the “million-dollar” lifetime premium that allegedly came with a college degree.  That meme, which also started with the College Board, had been debunked over and over by economists, but has refused to die.  The American Council on Education (ACE) was still circulating a version of it in fall 2011.  But the supposed premium has been shrinking in other estimates, as in this Kentucky study that puts it as $600,000.  Porter sets it still lower, at $365,000.

What the 18- to 29-year-olds who responded to the College Board/National Journal survey seem to know that the experts don’t is that the “premium” isn’t spread very evenly.  Some college grads get the equivalent of a frequent flyer pass on the Virgin Galactic.  Others remain grounded in their parents’ basements hoping for a callback for a job as night manager at a fast food restaurant.  The “premium” for an increasingly large segment of college graduates is actually a negative number when you take into account the opportunity costs of lost wages, exorbitant interest of student loans, and principal.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the College Board study, however, is captured in the National Journal’s headline, “Why Minorities Are more Optimistic About the Value of College.”  More optimistic?  Yes, and in the case of Hispanics, decidedly so.  In answer to the question, “Do you think young people today need a four-year college degree in order to be successful?” 70 percent of Hispanic respondents said yes.  Among Asians, 61 percent; blacks, 55 percent; and whites, 47 percent.

The figures were similarly skewed on a question about President Obama’s goal of “increasing the share of Americans ages 25 to 34 who earn some kind of post high school degree.”  Among blacks, 76 percent thought this would improve the economy; 68 percent of Hispanics; 63 percent of Asians; and 48 percent of whites.

The National Journal fails to deliver on its promise to explain “why” these racial disparities appeared in the answers, but we can perhaps surmise that members of minority groups have more confidence in the power of credentials than whites do.  It is hard to know whether the confidence is warranted.  Possibly a member of a minority group who earns a bachelor’s degree has an edge that a typical white graduate does not get.  Alternatively, perhaps greater percentages of minority groups are blind to the changes in the market that have weakened the B.A. as an all-purpose credential to start a career.

The larger picture, however, is that strikingly large numbers of young people from all racial backgrounds are skeptical about the need for a college degree.  First Lady Michelle would like to change that. If she succeeds, however, she is likely to propel a lot of students into long-term disappointment.   As my colleague Robert Maranto has pointed out, the people who keep telling students that college is the only way forward are often high school educators.  They have a certain self-interest in seeing students matriculate to college regardless of what comes next.

And what comes next is often a picture of wasted time and money.

Moreover, the goal of making the U.S. first in the world in percentage of college graduates is ill-conceived.  I was one of the first to point out that the sheer percentage of college graduates a nation can claim has no meaningful correlation to national prosperity.  Nations that have very high percentages of college graduates, such as Russia, are not powerhouses of productivity or rolling in wealth that flows from the density of college graduates.  Other nations such as Germany in which a much smaller fraction of the adult population is college-degreed, however, are thriving.

Michelle, if you happen to be reading this, let me tell you why the goal is misconceived.  Education, like horticulture, requires paying attention to individual needs.  Some plants need full sun; some die if overwatered.  Likewise students need different amounts, intensities, and levels of education.  We do young people an injustice if we insist there is only one worthy step after high school.  What would serve both students and the nation as a whole much better is, to borrow a word, diversity.  In this case, a diversity of opportunities, such as might be fostered by a robustly growing economy.

Peter Wood

Peter Wood

Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “Diversity: the Invention of a Concept.”

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