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.