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Increasing College Completion Rates – Wrong Policy Emphasis?

Why Wisconsin Matters to All Americans

Barack Obama has been surprisingly silent regarding the turmoil taking place in Wisconsin. His muted response contrasts noticeably with his constant support for education in general and particularly his belief that America’s economic future is tied to increasing college attainment rates.

The importance of messaging can be seen by the changing view underway in households across the country. A recent MetLife survey (pdf) reveals that 75 percent of middle and high school students currently plan on going to college. That percentage represents a significant increase over similar polls taken in 1988 (57%) and 1997 (67%). Furthermore, 84 percent of students believe that there will be “few or no” career opportunities for those who fail to complete some higher education.

Sadly, these aspirations conflict with two emerging trends. First, only 69% of high school students are enrolling in two- or four-year programs following graduation and just 57% are completing their degree program within six years.

But perhaps more importantly, there is now a growing concern that the “college for everyone” mantra may well be a bad policy initiative.

False Assumption

The notion that education continues to be the critical component for future economic success went unquestioned for quite some time. With some data indicating (pdf) that over an adult’s working life a bachelor’s degree is worth a million dollars in additional earnings, the push for higher education attainment is a central theme of most government officials, not just President Obama.

Yet today there is emerging evidence to the contrary. The idea that all the jobs of the future will require even higher levels of skill is now being questioned by a number of individuals.

Paul Krugman, Princeton professor and New York Times columnist, recently asserted that the conventional wisdom is flat out wrong. Citing the work of Daron Acemoglu and David Autor, Krugman discussed the trend towards broad-based increases in employment in high skill and low skill occupations relative to middle skilled occupations, a development called job ‘polarization.’

Since 1990, it seems that the U.S. job market has been characterized by a “hollowing out.” That hole in the middle, as Krugman calls it, has actually been getting wider: high-wage occupations that grew rapidly in the 1990s have since slowed while growth in low-wage employment has accelerated.

In simplest terms computers excel at routine tasks but cannot handle tasks unless they can be defined by explicit rules. Therefore many kinds of manual labor (from driving trucks to cleaning buildings) cannot be replaced by technology and thus will always be in demand.

Furthermore, it seems that most of the automation that can be accomplished in terms of manufacturing jobs has been done but “computerized legal research and computer-aided medical diagnosis” are only just now emerging to replace workers.

A More Appropriate Policy Initiative

In conclusion, Krugman is anything but unequivocal in his assertions:

“The notion that putting more kids through college can restore the middle-class society we used to have is wishful thinking. It’s no longer true that having a college degree guarantees that you’ll get a good job, and it’s becoming less true with each passing decade.”

Rather than push higher education as a policy initiative, Krugman insists our nation ought to venture in a different direction. According to Krugman, a society of broadly shared prosperity has really nothing to do with expanding educational opportunities for all.

Instead, it has everything to do with the ability for all Americans to “bargain for good wages” and to have “access to health care.” Which is why the developments in Wisconsin are so important to each and every American.

1 comment

1 lance { 03.27.11 at 5:11 pm }

Great article. One that many of us in education need to really understand and pass along.

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