Monday, March 01, 2010

A Few Thoughts on Friday's Debate

by Daniel L. Bennett

CCAP would like to thank the organizers and sponsor (Miller Center, PBS and Lumnina Foundation) for putting together and inviting Dr. Vedder to participate in this lively debate on higher education and the economy last Friday. Paul Solman did a fine job moderating. Also, thanks to our supporters who came out to cheer us on. For those who were unable to attend, the Miller Center has a PBS broadcast schedule available on its website, and should have video up soon. The broadcast schedule suggests that most markets will air the debate the week of March 17-22 during the news hour. We will re-post the video as soon as it is available. Now, a few thoughts on the actual debate.

I thought that the framing of the resolution (To remain a world class economic power, the U.S. workforce needs more college graduates) was too ambiguous. By this I mean that the term college graduates can take several meanings (i.e. - graduate, bachelor, associate, certification, etc) and was not well defined, which (I believe) allowed the debaters to sidestep certain arguments and (at times) talk past rather than address each other's viewpoints. I don't believe that either side of the debate would agree that a high school education for the majority of American citizens is sufficient. But I do believe that some divergence of opinion occurs, depending on how college is defined.

The opponents of the resolution (Vedder and Leef) would likely agree that most citizens need some form of education or training beyond high school, given its current form; however, they would disagree that all such students should be directed to a 4-year residential colleges to pursue a bachelor's degree, and that the public should foot the bill, for several reasons. These also happen to be some of the key arguments against the resolution, including:
1) Many are academically unprepared, whether they lack motivation, interest or the necessary skill set for academic work;
2) Many students would be better off seeking vocational or hands-on training than a liberal arts education;
3) It would result in a mismatch between education and work force need. Supply of college graduates does not create its own demand - it is the other way around. The number of jobs expected to be created that require a BA is expected to be less than the number of graduates, resulting in an oversupply of BA-credentialed job seekers and an under-supply of tradesmen and vocational aptitude. This effect is already starting to deflate the value of a college education;
4) It would be prohibitively costly (for the students and taxpayers) to do so and would likely do more harm to our economy than benefit due to the law of diminishing returns.
The proponents of the resolution (Lomax, Spellings), would also likely agree that most Americans need some additional education beyond high school, although it was not exactly clear what levels of education they would support. My assumption is that this side would argue that the focus should be on college graduates at the BA level given the arguments made, which included:
1) the egalitarian principle - providing equal opportunity for low-income and minority students;
2) using education as the societal equalizer to eradicate inequality;
3) statistical averages that suggest that college grads earn more than non college grads;
4) the idea that college grads, on average, are more engaged in civics, healthy lifestyles, etc.

(Note: the latter 2 points are often cited as benefits of college education, but are a correlation and not a causation)
It is unfortunate that there was this ambiguity built into the framework of the debate. This caused some confusion, especially in the discussion of (what Mr. Leef termed) marginal students and whether vast resources should be expended to send them to college. I don't believe that the opposition believes that citizens with low academic aptitude should be shut out of all educational training opportunities altogether, but rather they are not the best candidates for the liberal arts. The proponents could argue in favor of sending these folks to college without specifying what exactly this entails. In other words, they could make the case that a high school dropout deserves the chance to attend college, whether that means a short-term adult education program, vocational training or a 4-year degree. I thought that it would have been better to define college more precisely, such as education leading to either an associates or bachelors degree (and excluding certification training).

While this is a grievance of mine, it did not hinder a lively discussion that touched on many important areas and topics. I enjoyed attending the debate and hearing all of the distinguished guests engage in an intelligent and civil discussion about an important topic. The Q&A session that followed was provocative and lively. A few issues that deserved to get more attention include continually growing levels of student debt and low completion rates. In the end, both sides were able to agree on several key issues, including:
1) Our secondary schooling system is inadequate at preparing students to enter college
2) Colleges need to be held more accountable for outcomes
3) Our education system needs to be more responsive to the market (labor force needs)

1 comment:

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