Should Government Help More Go to College?

Published February 6, 2011

President Obama in the State of the Union restated his long-held position that the federal government should do more to provide a college education to more Americans. “This is our generation’s ‘Sputnik Moment,'” Obama said.

According to the College Board, the U.S. currently ranks 12th out of 36 countries among citizens aged 25 to 34 with a college bachelor’s degree. America once ranked No. 1 in the world among college grads. But in recent years, with college tuition skyrocketing, some economists and policymakers have argued that a BA or BS is an overpriced credential.

Does the declining college graduation rate threaten U.S. prosperity, or is it an opportunity to reshape the way Americans prepare for careers in the 21st century? Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, weigh in.


Sending more Americans to college sounds like the fulfillment of a dream for millions of people. In reality, President Obama’s goal would be an expensive boondoggle that would leave millions of Americans with an essentially worthless piece of paper and saddled with six figures of debt.

Here’s the truth: Most people don’t need a college diploma. But because U.S. employers have few effective or legal ways of sorting qualified applicants from the unqualified, they use the bachelor’s degree as a proxy. The result? Jobs that 20 or 30 years ago would have required nothing more than a high school education now “require” a BA for no reason other than everyone else has one.
A not-so-funny thing happens when the federal government meddles with higher education: Costs go way up and value plummets. When the government encourages people to go to college, it boosts the number of students and graduates.

But in doing so, the worth of a college degree has depreciated while costs have soared. Four years at a middling state university will set you back $60,000, with room and board. Harvard and Yale are six-figure propositions.
Yet even as the Obama administration is pushing more Americans to go to college, new regulations would place onerous burdens on private, for-profit schools.

So-called “gainful employment” rules and income tests would require private schools — and only private schools — to certify their graduates can find well-paying jobs to pay back their federal student loans.

Meanwhile, not-for-profit state schools may continue churning out philosophy, literature and women’s studies majors unabated.

The irony of the Obama administration’s policy, says Ohio University economist Richard Vedder, is the federal government is attacking the very segment of the higher education market that best serves low-income, minority populations. If Obama really wanted to raise the college graduation rate, he should encourage private enterprise.

Instead, he’s smothering it.


Why go to college? That’s where the work is.

As President Obama noted, almost half of all new jobs in the next 10 years will require some education beyond high school. How can young Americans prepare for those jobs without going tens of thousands of dollars into debt, or getting stuck in classes for which they’re unsuited? Two options come readily to mind.

First, Americans shouldn’t think of “college” strictly in terms of an expensive four-year school and a bachelor’s degree waiting at the end.

For millions of young adults, community colleges can inexpensively provide needed technical skills in nursing, IT and other similar jobs.

The president has a head start. Last year he committed $2 billion to the nation’s community colleges, to help 5 million Americans obtain an associate’s degree by 2020. It’s not remotely controversial, and it could prove highly effective.

Second, Congress can fill out the ranks of educated Americans by reviving and passing the DREAM Act. The bill — which died under Senate filibuster in December — would create a pathway to citizenship for the sons and daughters of illegal immigrants if they joined the military or acquired a college degree after high school. The Center for American Progress estimates passage could add as many as 252,000 new scientists, engineers, and technical workers to the American workforce.

This seems controversial, but it shouldn’t be. The DREAM Act once had the support of Republican Sens. John McCain and Orrin Hatch — the latter even sponsored the bill in 2003 — but they joined the December filibuster, suggesting they care more about denying Obama a victory than enacting good policy.

The jobs of tomorrow will require educated Americans. The goal is within reach, if Republicans can put aside petty politics.

Contact Ben Boychuk at [email protected] and Joel Mathis at [email protected]. Boychuk and Mathis blog regularly at and