Sunday, May 15, 2011
Obama And The College Question
President Obama has expressed his belief that the United States must increase the number of college graduates if we are to improve our economic competitiveness. Mr. Obama is mistaken; at least from an economic perspective, our focus should be on the quality rather than the quantity of degrees.
To start off with, the emphasis on quantity has led to significant degree inflation, in other words, the cost of obtaining a liberal arts degree has significantly increased, while the employment opportunities that such a degree offers have declined. The unintended consequence of this quantitative (but not qualitative) increase is that a host of employers now seek degree holders for low paying administrative and service industry positions. This has led to a massive increase in student debt and loan defaults. Those unable or unwilling to incur such debt will face diminishing job opportunities, which will lead to decreased economic and social mobility within the United States. This has also encouraged more graduates to seek their fortunes in an already bloated public sector and the near bankruptcy of federal, state and local governments means that fewer individuals will be able to pursue this option.
If Obama were to think outside of the quantitative box, he would focus on increasing the number of Americans obtaining degrees that are vital to economic competitiveness, such as mathematics, engineering & physics. He would ask questions like why so few native born Americans pursue their studies in these fields, as demonstrated by the increasing number of foreign born doctors, engineers & scientists. I must emphasize I am in no way attacking these economically vital immigrants, rather I am troubled by the cultural factors that I believe had lead fewer Americans to pursue an education in engineering and the sciences.
Economic reason dictates that rather than redistribute wealth (via expanding federal entitlements) towards the surplus of low skilled workers, we should focus our efforts on shifting workers to fields that face real labor shortages, such as engineering. And those who are not willing or able to pursue this path should be encouraged to seek employment in relatively high paying blue collar jobs that do not require a 4 year degree, such as plumbing and carpentry. For this to occur, Mr. Obama and his team of "experts" will have to undergo significant changes (that we could believe) in the way they envision the causes of and solutions to the educational and economic challenges that we face.