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Too Many College Students? Hardly

Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars (NAS), is a skilled writer with a quick wit. His latest article on American higher education, “Helium, Part 2,” published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, deftly weaves together a variety of the favorite targets of the NAS—government funding of higher education, lack of “rigor” in colleges, President Obama, the decline of “college curricula rooted in the civilization that has sustained the university for more than a millennium,” radicalized college faculties, complacent college administrators, the failure of traditional institutions to embrace online instruction—into a single and supremely self-assured narrative of imminent collapse.

Maybe Dr. Wood is right about all of this. I hope not, but then, as he would be quick to point out, I am, as the president of a liberal-arts college, deeply invested in the system that he believes to be on the verge of a self-created collapse. The last time I attempted to defend higher education, against the attacks of the erstwhile presidential candidate Rick Santorum, Dr. Wood accused me in The Chronicle of “contumely.” I am learning to live with this burden.

One statement near the end of Dr. Wood’s latest piece, however, cannot be allowed to stand without comment.

“Too many students are going to college—too many for their own good, but also too many for the good of college itself.”

Here Dr. Wood joins a list of other college-educated figures—including Senator Santorum, billionaire Peter Thiel, and author Michael Ellsberg—who contend that others are not in need of the sort of educational advantage that they themselves received. This has become something of a drumbeat in recent months.

Currently in the United States, 39 percent of adults aged 35 to 64 are holders of an associate’s degree or higher. The percentage of adults aged 25 to 34 who are holders of an associate’s degree or higher is …39 percent. To provide some context, the comparable figures for Canada are 44 and 55 percent; for Japan, 35 and 54 percent; for Korea, 25 and 53 percent.  For the older demographic, the United States ranks second to Canada in higher education attainment; for the younger demographic, the United States ranks tenth among developed nations. In other words, the rest of the world is getting more educated more quickly than is the US.

“Too many students are going to college—too many for their own good… .”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate from 2001 to 2010 among those with a bachelor’s degree averaged 2.9 percent. The rate among those with a high school degree averaged 5.9 percent. The May 2012 national unemployment rate stood at 8.2 percent; the rate among those with a bachelor’s degree was 4.1 percent. In a recent commentary in Bloomberg News that is anything but a puff piece for higher education, A. Gary Shilling reports that “those lacking a high-school diploma average $973,000 [in lifetime earnings] in 2009 dollars and advanced-degree holders can expect to make $3-million or more during their careers.”

The students least well served by our educational system are those who come from the least affluent backgrounds, and those are also the students for whom higher education provides the greatest advantage. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, 62 percent of children from the bottom income quintile who attain a college degree escape poverty, compared with less than one-third of those without a college degree.

According, again, to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, states with higher levels of educational attainment see higher wages for all categories of workers, including those without college degrees. Wages for those with only high-school degrees are 27 percent higher in the states with high levels of college attainment than in those with low levels. In other words, more education means better jobs and more prosperity for entire communities, not simply for the degree-holders.

In my own state of Minnesota, I have for the past year been part of a task force devoted to the improvement of higher education in the state. This has been a business-education partnership, with participation from the leaders of many of the largest employers in the state. Here is a passage from the group’s recently published report: “Higher education is central to supplying the skilled talent and innovations that are major drivers of productivity and job creation. Therefore, it is essential that Minnesota continues to promote an exemplary higher-education system.” This comes from the leadership of companies including Cargill, Target, General Mills, and USBank—not from higher education itself, and not from those who are unfamiliar with the needs of the marketplace.

It is neither unusual nor surprising when those in possession of something of great value, like a college degree, suggest that others less fortunate would, “for their own good,” be better off without that valuable possession. It is also condescending and, sometimes, destructive. We need more Americans, not fewer, to have easier and more affordable access to higher education. For our failures in this area higher education must bear some of the blame, as must public officials who have systematically disinvested in higher education over an extended period of time and those who are spreading the gospel of education for fewer.

Among the profound ironies of the current anti-education argument is that it is not in fact “rooted in the civilization that has sustained the university for more than a millennium” and whose devaluing the NAS and others lament. Much has been written about the commitment to a broadly educated populace of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin and about their belief in the interdependence of education and democracy. And it was John Adams who wrote in 1785 that:

“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it.”

Perhaps we can all benefit from spending more time this summer reading the Founding Fathers.

Brian Rosenberg is president of Macalester College.

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