John Edwards wants “greater access to college” – good policy or bad?

In an interview published in the July 7th The Chronicle of Higher Education, former North Carolina senator John Edwards set forth his views on higher education, arguing in favor of federal policies to make college education nearly as universal as K-12 is, with the government picking up the expense for students who can’t afford it.

Let’s take a look at his arguments, which are similar to those of former governor Jim Hunt and others who think that the country needs to “invest” more in higher education.

The first question from the interviewer asked how important a college education is for the poorest students to succeed. Edwards replied, “It’s everything….Education is absolutely critical…and that’s going to be more intensely true going forward than it is today….”

Immediately, we confront a difficulty. Edwards speaks as though “education” by itself will enable people to get and keep good jobs. What people need, however, are skills.

Formal classroom education is not the only or necessarily the best way for people to acquire skills. One important fact is that the typical undergraduate “education” these days at many colleges and universities has been so watered down that students often graduate with weak abilities in reading, writing and basic math, a problem I have written about here. What most employers want to see in applicants is evidence that they possess the basic skills and are readily trainable. At one time, possession of a high school diploma was a good proxy for basic skills and trainability, but now even a college degree is doubtful in that regard.

It’s a bad mistake to equate formal education with productive skills. Today, you can find college graduates earning meager paychecks doing work such as ushering in theaters or selling coffee. You can also find non-graduates earning impressive paychecks as auto mechanics or precision machinists. People don’t get paid for having sat through classes. They get paid because they can do useful things.

Edwards is concerned that a college education is becoming too expensive for people from poorer families and for that reason he has set up a privately-funded program to assist high school graduates in Greene County, which has low income and education levels. This program only began last fall and we have no idea how well it will work. (“Work” has to mean something more than just enrolling in college, since nearly half of the students who enroll later drop out, and as we have seen, merely obtaining a degree doesn’t ensure that you’ll land a good job once you’ve graduated.) Nevertheless, Edwards is eager for a national program to do the same thing, making college education nearly as much an entitlement as is K-12.

Asked about the expense, Edwards replied, “It’s just a basic, fundamental judgment about where higher education fits on the spectrum of priorities. I mean, if we as a nation commit that this is at the top of the list, then lack of money won’t be an issue.” But there are always trade-offs when it comes to the use of resources. Getting even more students into college (currently, about 70 percent of high school graduates enroll in some institution of postsecondary education, but many later drop out) might be a very high priority to Edwards, but if taking college courses doesn’t necessarily do much to enhance the productivity of people, then spending more on higher education is a poor use of resources.

True to form, Edwards can’t resist a bit of populist demagoguery: “But if on the other hand we think our priority is to give tax cuts to rich people, then the money won’t be available….” I presume that Edwards understands that rich people often finance productive investments that provide employment opportunities and new products and services that benefit rich and poor alike. Unfortunately, he can’t admit that publicly without damaging his credentials as a champion of “the little guy.” Democratic presidential aspirants can’t ever toss away the envy card.

Edwards also argues that our ability to compete in the international economy depends on doing more to make college “accessible.” He states that, “If we are not competing, particularly in areas like math and science and technology, places where the Chinese in particular, but India and others that are putting an enormous amount of effort and money, it makes it very hard for America to be competitive economically over the long term. Colleges are the places where we ensure that America is competitive.”

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Edwards’ is right that our future prosperity depends on producing more college graduates with math, science and technology backgrounds. (The contention is questionable, but this isn’t the place to debate it.) Is there any reason to believe that his policy of subsidizing higher education so that more students can attend will do anything to keep the U.S. economically competitive?

I don’t think so. Among the marginal students who might be drawn into college instead of entering the job market or the military after high school (and as Jay Greene and Greg Forster have shown, there are few young Americans who have the academic preparation to enroll in college, but do not), the likelihood that we would find any who’d become mathematicians or scientists is extremely remote. It takes a strong academic background to pursue a course of study leading to a degree in math or the hard sciences and we’re already putting all of the students with such ability into college. If it’s true that American firms need more scientists and mathematicians, it makes infinitely more sense to rely on them to create incentives that will steer more of the academically strong students already in college into those career paths than for government to subsidize college for more academically marginal students.

Rather than shooting for a big, expensive expansion of higher education, people like Edwards who say they’re concerned about the ability of poor people to make progress ought to advocate the following: 1) dramatic K-12 change so that high school graduates will have the basic skills that will make them attractive to employers; 2) the elimination of regulations that impede the ability of people to start businesses and enter occupations; 3) the creation of alternative credentialing mechanisms to the increasingly meaningless BA degree.