Michael Rizzo wrote a great op-ed for Inside Higher Ed that asks (and answers) the question-- do we need more college graduates? President Obama’s educational goal is for the U.S. to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world, but Rizzo points out two flaws with this plan.
First, the U.S. already has the highest proportion. The commonly reported OECD data limits the study to the 25-64 year old population, but when the data is analyzed to include all age ranges, the United States has a 30.3% college attainment rate. This is far and above other developed nations. Far behind in second place is South Korea with a 19.1% attainment rate. While the American growth rate lags that of its international peers, this is not necessarily a bad thing.
Second, if the U.S. were not already the world leader, would it want to be? After all, education is not excluded from the concept of diminishing returns. Education is not an end in itself for a society, but a means to an end. It is not going to be beneficial to dedicate resources to educating the population if the jobs we need for success don’t require an education. As Rizzo points out, growth is a complex recipe that involves more than education.
Education is but one of many ingredients in a mysterious growth recipe. Producing valuable goods and services requires the “right” mix of physical capital, labor skills, technological advances, institutions (such as secure property rights, the rule of law, customs and mores that promote trust, and so forth) and more than a sprinkle of luck. This mix differs across countries and over time and the recipe is wholly unknowable to any individual or group of individuals – in fact there is no recipe to follow.
Societies, like individuals, must make decisions on how to use their limited time and resources, and at some point additional benefits from a good no longer outweigh the costs. Rizzo notes
More education has to be a good thing. After all, receiving more schooling can’t make you less productive, right? Education is like exercise, reading, spending time with one’s children, and sleeping – each of these is good for you. It is obvious that dedicating more attention to each of these is good. It is obvious … and wrong – for both individuals and societies as a whole.With a limited supply of capital and resources for colleges, it is highly probably that Obama's goal to increase the proportion of the population attending college will result in a decrease in educational quality. As the average quality of enrolled students declines, the quality of education is surely to follow. As more students receive watered down college credentials, the economic benefits of a degree will fall. With a higher portion of resources dedicate to higher education, society will be forced to devote less to other goals. The educational facilities that stand to benefit from such a plan are the private, elite universities who will be able to charge more and keep the door closed to the majority of the public. Does this makes us an better off than we are today? Likely not.
Lastly, Rizzo points out that the higher educational levels across the globe do not harm America. Wealth and growth are not zero-sum games. As importers of foreign goods and services, we all stand to benefit from other country's gains. We do not need to be #1 by some arbitrary figure to maintain growth and success. While it might not be politically popular, it is in the nation’s best interest to look elsewhere for growth by embracing educated immigrants and foreign trade while developing our own comparative advantage.