Ask random members of the professoriate at my alma mater, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and many will confide that too many people—not too few, as recently suggested by President Barack Obama—are attending college these days. This opinion is impolite and impolitic (perhaps, in the context of the American university, we should say "un-PC"). But years of furtive conversation with academics suggest it is commonly held. And one can see why. To the professor with expertise in Austro-Hungarian history, for instance, it is unclear why his survey course on the casus foederis of World War I is a necessary stop in a management-level job training program at Hertz.
This is not to say that some Americans should be discouraged from participating in a liberal arts education. As the social scientist Charles Murray writes in his book Real Education, "Saying 'too many people are going to college' is not the same as saying that the average student does not need to know about history, science, and great works of art, music, and literature. They do need to know—and to know more than they are currently learning. So let's teach it to them, but let's not wait for college to do it."
Take this bullet point, proudly included in a November 2008 press release from the Boston public school system: "Of the [Boston public school] graduates from the Class of 2000 who enrolled in college (1,904), 35.5 percent (675 students) earned a degree within seven years of high school graduation. An additional 14 percent (267 students) were still enrolled and working toward a degree." In a news conference celebrating these dismal numbers, Mayor Tom Menino called for a "100 percent increase" in the number of city students attending college, though offered no suggestions on how to ensure that those students actually graduate or are properly prepared to handle undergraduate studies. Besides, if 14 percent of those enrolled are still ambling towards a degree after eight years, is Menino convinced that the pursuit of a university education was the right decision for these students, rather than, say, vocational training?
Alas, these numbers are not uncommon. (They're often worse in other major American cities.) Citing a recent study by two education experts at Harvard University, former Secretary of Education Margret Spellings sighed, "The report shows that two-thirds of our nation's students leave high school unprepared to even apply to a four-year college." Nevertheless, a huge number of these students are matriculating to four-year universities, incurring mountains of debt, and never finishing their degrees.
The devalued undergraduate degree is one thing when the people doing the devaluing have privately financed their education. It is quite another when the federal government foots the bill. While America debates the merits of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the nationalization of General Motors, and how to fix a broken health care system, the Obama administration has been quietly planning a massive expansion of the Pell Grant program, "making it an entitlement akin to Medicare and Social Security." Read that sentence again. As we spiral deeper into recession and debt, our dear leaders in Washington are considering the creation of a massive entitlement akin to the expensive, inefficient, and failing Medicare and Social Security programs.
According to a report in The Washington Post, Obama's proposals "could transform the financial aid landscape for millions of students while expanding federal authority to a degree that even Democrats concede is controversial." It is a plan that has met with outspoken—though likely toothless—resistance from Republicans. Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), the senior Republican on the House Budget Committee, suggested that the president reform existing entitlements before creating new ones. And, as noted in the Post, Obama is facing resistance from his own side of the aisle as well, with Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) expressing skepticism towards both the price tag and the necessity of such an expansion.
Beyond the massive cost of expanded Pell Grants, Ohio University economist Richard Vedder argues that, historically, "it is hard to demonstrate that enhanced federal assistance has either significantly expanded college participation or brought about much greater access to higher education by those who are financially disadvantaged." If the idea is expanded into an entitlement, Vedder sees rising demand for higher education leading to significantly higher costs. "When someone else is paying the bills, costs always rise."
With more than 40 percent of students who enter college dropping out before graduation, Vedder's suggestion that "a greater percentage of entering college students should be attending community colleges, moving up to four year universities only if they succeed well at the community college level," seems sound. But the idea pushed by President Obama that, regardless of a student's career aspirations, secondary education is a necessity in 21st century America, ensures that an undergraduate education will become a required (very expensive) extension of every high school diploma.
To the average high school senior, the American university has become an institution that one simply must slog through to reach a higher salary. As one college dropout recently told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "I am determined to finish my degree. A high school job isn't cutting it these days." The former student, the reader is told, simply wants "to do something else with her life," though it is unclear just what that something else is. Perhaps she'll figure that out after getting the degree.
As Charles Murray observed in The Wall Street Journal, "Our obsession with the BA has created a two-tiered entry to adulthood, anointing some for admission to the club and labeling the rest as second-best." But not to worry. If Obama's plan for a secondary education entitlement is foisted upon us—the final cost of which remains anyone's guess—we might soon have a one-tiered system where everyone is second-best.
Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor of Reason magazine and Reason.com. This column first appeared at Reason.com.