In his most recent State of the Union address, President Obama pointed to four areas of reform: Health care, energy, finance, and… education.  As far as education goes, Obama has said that his goal is for 60% of Americans to hold a college degree by 2020.  That’s very ambitious, considering the fact that right now the high school graduate rate is hovering around only 70%.  Is it even possible to enroll enough students between 2010 and 2020 to reach a nationwide goal of a 60% college-educated citizenry?

Phil Brand at the Washington Examiner points out some underlying issues in the president’s education goal. 

First of all, should we send more students to college for the sake of sending more students to college?  College enrollment should be about the merit and desires of individual students, not numbers.  If the goal is simply to give out more degrees, we could do this by lowering our admittance standards at colleges and universities across the country.  It would be far better if policymakers focused on improving the quality of K-12 education (for example through choice programs, that would facilitate access to better quality instruction more tailored to students’ needs), so that more students would naturally be ready for college-level work.

Another issue Brand mentions is the room (or lack of room, rather) in our economy for more college graduates.  In 2020, will our economy be ready to accommodate a work force that is 60% college-educated?  We already face unemployment numbers around 10%.  The problem with unemployment is certainly not that workers seeking jobs lack qualification.  In fact, many people are working jobs they are overqualified for in today’s economy. 

I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t provide more opportunities for more students.  Opportunity is good, especially when students learn enough in K-12 to be ready for the opportunity to go to college.  But I think it’s worth pointing out, especially with regard to yesterday’s news about student loan debt, that the expense of higher education – whether it’s an associate’s degree, a B.A., M.A., or Ph.D. – should be considered in light of demand in the economy.  And college should be about obtaining knowledge and skills that can be put to productive use-not just obtaining a piece of paper.