The Magazine

A Ph.D. in Every Pot

Obama's diploma mill.

Mar 9, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 24 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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In the long, long list of presidential directives that President Obama handed down to his countrymen in his televised Day of Reckoning speech last week, one was more far-reaching than it appeared at first glance. "Tonight," he said, "I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training." He said he didn't much care what kind of higher education it was: "community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship." The ultimate goal is that by 2020 "America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world." Then we'll be able to compete in that globalized economy we keep hearing about, "where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge."

The goal, though comfortably far off, is impressive enough, but the point was driven home with unusual force. First, the president insisted that "dropping out of high school is no longer an option." Anyone who doesn't finish high school, he said, is "quitting on your country." (This attack on the patriotism of high-school dropouts drew whoops of approval from his audience on Capitol Hill.) So everyone has to finish high school, and everyone who finishes high school has to go on to higher education. And if they go on to higher education but don't go on to get a degree, America won't regain its world title in college graduates. They'll be letting down the team.

To prevent such an outcome, the president will provide a variety of inducements, from the tiniest Pell Grants for a two-year associate's degree to full rides at the fanciest four-year colleges. And as you might expect, the people who stand to receive the most money under the president's proposal are adamant in their belief that the country probably will not survive unless it is enacted at once. The president of the American Council on Education could barely contain herself.

"The education components of the new economic stimulus package prove that President Obama will back his words with resources and action," said Molly Corbett Broad. This is lobbyist talk for ka-ching! "If America is to compete economically," she went on, "we must have a competitive work force and a new generation of innovators and entrepreneurs."

The assumption here is that the way to make somebody a competitive worker is to send him to college, an idea that will astonish anyone who's ever been served in a restaurant by a waiter with a master's in art history. This is just the first of the confusions that dog the president's proposal, which for the moment exists only in hypothetical form. Another confusion comes from his hazy definition of what the problem is.

The 2020 goal relies on a gloomy factoid that has become a favorite of hand wringers and heavy breathers in the education-obsessed community. According to data compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranks tenth among the 30 developed nations in the higher-ed "participation rate"--the number of people between the ages of 25 and 34 with postsecondary degrees.

But the poor ranking isn't nearly as portentous as it seems, as several educational researchers have pointed out, to little effect. Clifford Adelman of the Institute for Higher Education Policy noted recently in (the indispensable) Inside Higher Ed that the OECD rankings take no account of the country's vast demographic and ethnic stew, and ignores a 45 percent increase in foreign-born immigrants over the last 15 years that tilts toward the young and unschooled. If a country's population is growing at the younger and older ends, then its higher-ed participation rate in the middle will appear artificially low. Most of the United States's OECD competitors have flat or declining population numbers, along with greater social conformity.