With a new school year begun and people focusing attention on questions of the cost and value of higher education, it is reasonable to inquire whether America is putting enough high school graduates through college. It is widely believed that we don't.
After all, six other nations now surpass the US in the percentage of younger adults who have college degrees, reports the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in "Measuring Up 2006: The National Report Card on Higher Education." The 2004 national report card concluded, "...the United States is underperforming in higher education." "Measuring Up 2006" maintains that this is still true. Commenting on the report's findings, the center's president, Patrick Callan, asserts: "What is at risk is America's future educational and economic leadership...."
But the notion that we will put our country's future in jeopardy unless we get more students through college is mistaken. The US already puts too many unmotivated students into college, where they learn little.
There are lots of American students who are eager to learn and proceed to master skills that aid them in their careers. But government and private support already get almost all of these passionate pupils into college. The trouble is that many other students enter college with no enthusiasm for learning. Boosting college participation would mean recruiting still more of these disengaged students. Increasing their numbers will not give us a more skilled workforce; it will just put more downward pressure on academic standards.
Already standards have been falling for decades, as schools have lowered expectations to keep weak, indifferent students enrolled. Indeed, many students who graduate from college are deficient in even the most basic skills that employers want. Last year's National Assessment of Adult Literacy found, for example, that less than a third of college graduates are proficient in reading and the ability to do elementary mathematical calculations. Similarly, the National Commission on Writing has found that many business executives are appalled at graduates' poor writing skills.
And although the word on the street is that more jobs demand a college degree (and presumably, college-level skills), that's not necessarily true. More employers require job applicants to have a degree not because the work is so challenging, but because there are so many college graduates in the labor force that they can afford to screen out those with less formal education.
In reality, although we may have entered the so-called "knowledge economy," the true backbone of the economy will continue to consist of low- and medium-skilled jobs. Take a look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics's 10 fastest growing occupations between 2004 and 2014, and you'll find that six of the 10 professions do not require a four-year degree, and four of these call for no academic degree at all.
We currently find many college graduates employed as waiters, cashiers, healthcare aides, and in other jobs that don't require any special background. Expanding college access will just mean more young people with college debts doing low-paid work.
Clearly, the US does not have a quantity problem with regard to higher education. Rather, it has a quality problem. As one student I know puts it, "People would be amazed if they knew how easy it is to graduate without learning anything." Certainly there are numerous positions that demand college-level skills, and we need talented graduates to fill them.
To turn out a more capable crop of young adults, colleges and universities should do their part: Raise academic standards to ensure that only those who want to be in college get there. Also, admissions counselors should remind prospective students that there are good career options for those who don't feel drawn to scholarly work. America is so rich in learning opportunities other than those found in college classrooms that we don't need to raise college graduation statistics for mere numbers' sake.
Above all, the US should stop worrying about the percentage of its younger citizens who have college degrees vs. the percentage in other countries. The truth is, most of what people need to know in order to be successful in life is not learned in formal educational settings. The job skills that help workers advance in their careers are usually learned on the job.
A college education should be accessible to anyone who wants one, but people are pretty good at figuring out what investments in knowledge and skill are best for them. They shouldn't feel undue pressure to obtain a four-year degree. We can all rest assured that our position in the world will not be harmed by the choices of our young people to seek the educational and career paths that best suit their wants and needs.
• George C. Leef is executive director of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh, N.C.