Obama: U.S. needs more college grads

Economic recovery will require more college graduates, said President Obama in a speech today at the University of Texas in Austin, reports the Washington Post.

“Lifting graduation rates. Preparing our graduates to succeed in this economy. Making college affordable. That’s how we’ll put a higher education within reach for anyone who wants it.”

The president did not announce any new initiatives, but recast his goal of making the U.S. first in the world in college degrees as “the economic issue of our times.”

“It’s an economic issue when the unemployment rate for folks who’ve never gone to college is almost double what it is for those who have,” he said. “It’s an economic issue when nearly eight in 10 new jobs will require workforce training or a higher education by the end of this decade. It’s an economic issue when we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan called leading the world in college graduates “the North Star for all of our educational initiatives.”

Currently, 40 percent of Americans between 25 and 34 have completed a two-year or four-year degree; Obama wants to boost that to 60 percent by 2020.

That would mean adding 11 million more college graduates to the ranks of that age cohort. Even assuming some additional graduates just from population growth, officials predicted the country will have to find a way to add more than 8 million new college graduates.

While 70 percent of high school graduates go directly to college, only 57 percent earn a degree within six years, reports the New York Times.

Education reformers have shifted the focus from sending more students to college to raising the completion rate, which includes vocational certificates as well as two-year and four-year degrees.

On Community College Spotlight, I’ve got a piece by George Leef, who challenges the idea that the economy will demand more college-educated workers. College is “worth it” for academically capable students, he writes, but how valuable is college for mediocre and marginal students?

The economy is not clamoring for more C- students who’ve majored in Beer Studies at Fratmore College or West Nowhere State U. There should be a demand for workers who’ve learned job skills at low-cost community colleges.

Increasing educational attainment is not a magic bullet for economic growth,” writes Russ Whitehurst of Brookings

A growing body of research suggests that policymakers should pay more attention to the link between job opportunities and what people know and can do, rather than focusing on the blunt instrument of years of schooling or degrees obtained.  In international comparisons, for example, scores on tests of cognitive skills in literacy and mathematics are stronger predictors of economic output than years of schooling.  Within the U.S. there is evidence that for many young adults the receipt of an occupational certificate in a trade that is in demand will yield greater economic returns than the pursuit of a baccalaureate degree in the arts and sciences.

“One size does not fit all nations or all young adults,” Whitehurst writes.

Ben Wildavsky wonders: Do we have to be number 1?

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