A few months ago, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum attacked Barack Obama’s stated desire to have more Americans pursue higher education. Santorum’s reasons for doing this were fundamentally political: he wanted to portray Obama as a snobby liberal against the image he was hoping to convey of himself as a down-to-earth practical guy who doesn’t want to see money wasted on liberal indoctrination (or whatever it is Santorum thinks happens in colleges…)
While I’m no fan of Santorum’s hypocritical intentions there (anyone else notice how he neglected to mention his own college degree – let alone his MBA and JD?), I do think its worth considering the skeptical view towards American politics’ fixation (dare I say obsession?) with driving up college attendance.
If we were to somehow able to achieve 100% (or even something like 60-70%) college admissions, an extended high school education (where the last four years might be more advanced and based on applications to different institutions) is basically what you would be creating.
If we think of getting the majority of kids into college in that sense, it begs the question: What would a world like that look like? I’d hazard the following two guesses:
- First, the costs would be enormous. Even today, with many colleges being independent of the government and with many students bearing the brunt of the cost of college directly, there is huge government involvement with financing. An “eight year high school system”, even if we assumed miraculous levels of efficiency and public-private partnership never before seen in the education system and government, would likely require a huge amount of dollars spent by the taxpayer and by students – if only to provide the financial support lower-income families would need to attend higher education.
- Second, I believe you would see the number of people going into advanced degrees (Masters, PhD’s, MBA’s, JD’s, MD’s, MPH’s, etc) would skyrocket. The reason for that is simple: if everyone goes to college – then its the same as if nobody went to college: the mark of attending college ceases to have any value in setting yourself apart from other people in the eyes of an employer. The funny thing is – one of the reasons I chose the “eight year high school” analogy is precisely because of the analogy that results: that college grads would became the equivalent of today’s high school grads: in the same trouble in terms of competing in the workforce and finding themselves needing to go to “college” (in this case getting an advanced degree).
One might even argue that a much more educated workforce is worth the cost but what this little thought experiment shows is that just extending high school by four years (the logical equivalent of getting much higher rates of college admissions) is not the obvious universal good that most politicians seem to suggest it is. The fact that students need to go to college at all to participate effectively in the workforce, in my opinion, says more about the lack of effectiveness of our K-12 system than about the value of college.
I think a more meaningful (and hopefully time-and-cost-effective) solution to our education system’s woes would actually be to address the real problems: (1) how students seem to not get enough out of K-12 to contribute to the workforce and (2) how students are forced to pursue expensive degrees just to compete.
- Bring K-12 quality up to what is needed for people to succeed in today’s workforce. I think this means investing in early education – study after study shows that some of the most effective education investments are those made in pre-kindergarten Head Start programs – embracing new technology-enabled approaches like Sal Khan’s brilliant Khan Academy, changing how we train and compensate teachers, and doubling down on training employable skills (like some of the ones I mentioned here). None of these are that controversial (although the devil is in the details) – what matters is being committed to the notion of increasing the value of K-12 rather than the just the years kids spend in school.
- Build an actually meaningful system of educational accreditation. Today, one of the most important ways to signal to employers that you can be a decent worker is a piece of paper that costs some $100,000+ called a college diploma. That piece of paper is not only extremely expensive, it also does a terrible job of elaborating what a person is good at (forcing many people to pursue further degrees). This system of accreditation really only serves colleges and the companies/people who make money off of them (i.e., admissions counselors/prep services, etc). An accreditation system which actually meaningfully communicated what people’s talents were (i.e. this person is extremely good at math, even though he did not major in math at a top 50 college; or this person is really good at machinework, even though she spent most of her last job planning events, etc) would be beneficial for both employers — who now have a better sense of who they are hiring — and workers — who can now be more discriminating about the value of their education and not needlessly participate in the rat race of tallying up schools/programs which only serve as a rubber stamp on your ability to pay expensive tuition.