Job seekers with only a high school degree not only face tough prospects but may put a drag on the US economy's ability to compete in the world. President Obama calls it "not just quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country."
He wants to change that. In his recent speech to Congress, the president set forth simple, bold goals for higher education: He asked young Americans to commit to at least one year of post-high school training, whether through an apprenticeship, vocational training, or at a two- or four-year college.
And by 2020, he said, America must have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.
His appeal reaches beyond self-interest and asks for a spirit of patriotism in such goals. And it emphasizes how important it is to raise the quality and level of education in order to have a secure and prosperous future.
The president laid out the problem well. "Three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma, and yet just over half of our citizens have that level of education," he said. "We have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation, and half of the students who begin college never finish."
The situation, he said, was "a prescription for economic decline, because we know the countries that outteach us today will outcompete us tomorrow."
Among his initiatives, Mr. Obama proposes to turn the Pell Grant Program, the giant need-based financial aid fund, into an entitlement, meaning it would be embedded in future budgets, akin to Social Security and Medicare. The grants, $5,550 per year in 2010, would be indexed to inflation plus 1 percent.
The result would be a more solid foundation for a program that has been forced to trust its funding to the whims of Congress from year to year. But it ought to also be recognized as another entitlement burden weighing on the US budget.
And colleges, too, need to be held more accountable for the quality of their education if they want to keep benefiting from federal funds.
Obama's plan would also end a subsidized student loan program administered by banks and bring that program into the federal bureaucracy. Given public disgust with the banking community right now, this may be the time to test whether such deeper federal involvement can prove more effective.
The Obama approach, which also includes making permanent a $2,500 tax credit per family for spending on college costs, addresses the challenges across a wide spectrum.
As the debate over education funding continues, a narrower focus may emerge: the need to upgrade vocational and community college opportunities. Out-of-work adults and those mustering out of the military will be flocking to these institutions to pick up job-related skills. Not only will they need to be able to afford this training, the institutions themselves must be ready to handle the increased workload.
More basic research is needed to understand what job skills will be needed in the future and what training will be most effective. How can high schools contribute to this training? How do vocational schools and apprenticeships fit into the picture? New money can't be thrown at unrealistic goals.
The Obama goals are worthy, but we've only begun to figure out the best way to attain them. The costs and practicality still need to be weighed.