Go to college! Bowdlerized, this is the message President Obama will be touting when he speaks at the University of Texas this week. The President will be pushing education reform, one of the four pillars of reform he outlined in his State of the Union Address (the others being financial, energy and healthcare reform). His ambitious, perhaps audacious is the word, goal, is for 60 percent of all Americans to hold a college degree by 2020. With classes resuming in just a few weeks, and after the dispiriting jobs numbers released last week, Obama’s message is both timely and simple: in the words of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, “We have to educate our way to a better economy.”
It is a message America’s young people are already hearing, according to a new report. The recent report from the Pew Foundation indicates that freshmen college enrollment is growing at a faster rate than at any time since 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War. The fall of 2008 saw a record 2.4 million freshmen enrolled in college, 144,000 more than in 2007. Although 2009 data haven’t been officially released, projections show the rapid growth in enrollment is continuing.
These trends are not all to the good. There’s always the issue of whether such a large number of students are qualified for college. As a high school teacher wrote of his school recently, “many of our staff beat the bushes to send as many warm bodies as they could on to higher education regardless of whether the students had the skills or motivation to do rudimentary high school work.” Then there is the issue of whether the economy demands such an educated workforce. This blogger and teacher quotes research by the Kellogg Foundation showing that in 2018, like today, two thirds of jobs will not require a BA, or even an associate’s degree.
The bigger problem is that circumstances—skyrocketing tuition, slowing economy, whispers of doubt concerning the economic return on investment from college—have all the makings of a bubble about to burst.
Legal professor and political blogger Glenn Reynolds puts it simply:
“Something that can’t go on forever, won’t.” What can’t go on forever, according to Reynolds, is the heavy borrowing and easy credit to finance steadily increasing tuitions. “That borrowing is based on the expectation that students will earn enough to pay off their loans with a portion of the extra income their educations generate,” Reynolds writes. “Once people doubt that, the bubble will burst.”
The President is calling for vastly increased college enrollment. For young people hearing that message, Reynolds offers a cautionary retort; think twice.