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Bill Maxwell

Debating college's worth

Americans are attending college in record numbers. According to a Pew Research Center study, 11.3 million Americans ages 18 to 24 attended college in 2008, continuing an upward trend that began 30 years ago.

Now, because of the deep economic downturn, high student debt, the failure of many students to graduate in four years and President Barack Obama's call for every American to get at least one year of higher education or vocational training, many old and new issues are being hotly debated.

Now a growing number of outspoken education experts are arguing that too many young people are attending college.

To address the major issues being debated, the Chronicle Review, a publication of the Chronicle of Higher Education, asked nine higher education experts, liberals and conservatives, to respond to seven questions. The two questions I found most challenging were these:

"Who should and shouldn't go to college?"

"Do we have a moral obligation as a society to work to send as many students as we can to college?"

Predictably, the conservatives and the liberal experts answered the questions quite differently. But these differences create a dynamic that is good for education at all levels in the United States. This is a healthy debate.

Hard-line conservatives, such as Charles Murray, political scientist and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, do not believe everyone should go to college who wants to go. Best known for his positions on race and intelligence, Murray argues that we should listen to the research.

"It has been empirically demonstrated," he writes, "that doing well (B average or better) in a traditional college major in the arts and sciences requires levels of linguistic and logical/mathematical ability that only 10 to 15 percent of the nation's youth possess. That doesn't mean that only 10 to 15 percent should get more than a high school education. It does mean that the four-year residential program leading to a B.A. is the wrong model for a large majority of young people."

On the other side, Daniel Yankelovich, founder and chairman of Viewpoint Learning Inc., which develops programs to resolve public policy issues, contends that college attendance has clear utilitarian value and should be encouraged: "In today's society and economy, virtually everyone who has the motivation and stamina should acquire some form of postsecondary education. That is a practical reality of today's economy."

The two camps sharply disagree on whether we have a moral obligation as a society to send as many students as we can to college.

Murray is unequivocal: "We have a moral obligation to destroy the current role of the B.A. in American life. It has become an emblem of first-class citizenship for no good reason."

Like Murray, Bryan Caplan, associate professor of economics at George Mason University, is blunt, if not cynical: "From a moral point of view, far too many students are going to college — just as far too many people stand up at concerts."

W. Norton Grubb, professor of policy, organization, measurement and evaluation at the University of California at Berkeley's Graduate School of Education, argues the opposite of Murray and Caplan.

"We do have a moral obligation, emerging from several centuries of concern with equity in a highly inequitable country, to make access to and completion of college more equitable," he writes. "But rather than proclaiming College for All, we should be stressing High School Graduation for All, emphasizing that such completion requires either college readiness or readiness for sustained employment — or for the combination of the two that has become so common."

Along with the comments of the experts, the Review published the results of an OppenheimerFunds Inc. survey of some 1,000 parents of precollege children about their thoughts on the importance of college. The findings will not please the likes of Murray and Caplan. Nine of 10 said that although the economy is in the tank, they still believe that sending their children to college is essential.

"No question, the dream of college is alive and well," William F. Glavin Jr., chief executive of OppenheimerFunds Inc., writes for the Review. "But what we found amounts to an urgent call to action for everyone concerned about accessible and affordable higher education."

While I do not believe that everyone needs to attend a four-year college, evidence shows that typical four-year graduates earn more than 50 percent more than typical high school graduates.

Even so, many young people can benefit from attending community colleges and trade schools to earn certificates and licenses that lead to better salaries and wages. For this reason alone, Obama is right to call on every American to receive at least one year of higher education or vocational training.

This is a debate that is worth having.

Debating college's worth 11/20/09 [Last modified: Sunday, November 22, 2009 8:26am]
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