By Richard Vedder
I like Margaret Spellings --a good deal. She has been a force for good in higher education, prodding the Establishment to innovate, to be more transparent, and to do good things. At the Education Summit in Chicago Thursday and Friday, she called together top leaders and got them to agree to push for positive change ---more transparency and measurement, better high school/college coordination and "articulation" (whatever that is), etc. She has raised hell about the awful state of accreditation, and wants accreditation to be a force for positive change, not merely a cartel of good old boys and girls that stifles innovation.
But I disagree with one big part of her farewell address (I suspect) to the higher education community, available here.
She said at the end of her remarks, "By educating 20 million more people over 20 years, we will increase our Gross Domestic Product by 500 billion dollars...Half a million more people will be employed..."
Where is the evidence? More than doubling enrollments in 17 years (what she is proposing) will mean reaching out to more and more persons of limited cognitive skills and questionable work habits. Do we need college educated clerks in discount retail stores, or college educated beauticians or mail carriers (12 percent of whom already have college degrees?) Brit Kirwan (Maryland higher education czar) notes in chatting with me that some of those mail carriers may have earned their degree in anticipation of moving up the occupational ladder --true and a good point, but we cannot have a nation of all chiefs and no followers.
What about the evidence that higher state university appropriations are not associated with positive economic growth? Indeed, my guess is that a doubling in enrollments, in and of itself, would lower GDP--shifting resources away from a highly productive economic machine governed by market discipline and to a less productive sector with stagnant productivity and a tendency to fight cost reduction, qualitative improvement, and change. To be sure, true structural reform in the system could modify that outcome, but frankly I am skeptical.