Samuel Goldman, writing at The American Conservative, makes an excellent point in response to the debate last week between Robert Samuelson and William Kirwan in the Washington Post about how many people we ought to be sending to college. Samuelson's argument, that we need to push back against the “college-for-all crusade,” is indeed a red herring; as Kirwan makes clear, no serious higher education professionals are calling for universal college education. But Kirwan also muddies the waters when he endorses President Obama's goal to “have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”
The problem with this rhetoric, as Goldman points out, is that the word “college” too-easily becomes a catch-all for a wide variety of postsecondary options, all of which require different policy approaches. Increasing the percentage of college graduates in the American workforce is an admirable goal, and must become a priority if our country is to remain competitive in the 21st century. But we need to be careful about how we allocate resources (whether discretionary spending or through the tax code) between two-year and four-year programs. How do we determine the right balance between vocational training and state schools? Community colleges and private universities?
Earlier this week, I noted how Mitt Romney fails to make such distinctions when he argues, for example, that we should eliminate all federal student aid because some of it gets capitalized into higher tuitions at for-profit schools. For-profits make up less than 10 percent of the higher education market; the majority of students attend state schools or community colleges that rely on taxpayer support to keep higher education—one of our most valuable public goods—affordable for all.
Along those lines, Samuelson is right to advocate for greater political and cultural support for community colleges and vocational training (although he goes too far when he suggests that two-thirds of American jobs don't require more than a high school diploma—STEM education is an investment in the economy of tomorrow, not today). It is unlikely, for instance, that public policy can improve affordability at many high-pedigree colleges, where a bachelor's degree has become little more than a signaling mechanism for employers, its cachet rising and falling with the school's ranking. The demand for these status-symbol degrees has proved remarkably inelastic in recent years, despite million-dollar professors' salaries and skyrocketing costs, and is likely to remain so.
Thankfully, the national conversation surrounding higher education is placing increasing emphasis on targeted, rather than one-size-fits-all, solutions. According to The Nation's Dana Goldstein, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been promoting recent efforts to limit federal aid to low-performing for-profit colleges—part of the administration's multi-faceted proposal to incentivize greater access and affordability. That plan includes the launch of College Navigator, an online tool that helps families compare college costs and graduation rates (gainful employment” statistics like students’ post-graduation debt-to-earnings ratio are in the works). Duncan has also suggested that high school counselors work to change students' attitudes towards community college and vocational training—a practical alternative to costly four-year programs that only half of students complete.
It's a start. If we are to have a healthy and diverse range of options for postsecondary education in the United States, then we need a diversity of policy responses, too. And that begins by changing the way we talk about “college.”