Conflicting Visions, Part I: Will Producing More Degree Holders Benefit Society?

Editor’s note: Perhaps there is no debate more important in higher education than that of access. Are we sending too many people to college or not enough? Today’s Pope Center commentary presents two sides of this vital discussion. First, Eric Johnson, a freelance writer who also works in financial aid for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, expresses a liberal view—that more people should go to college. Johnson’s piece is presented below. An alternative view, available here, is presented by Pope Center writer Jesse Saffron; it is primarily a conservative view—that expanding college access, though well-intentioned, creates substantial economic and social costs. Both writers are speaking only for themselves and not their organizations—nor for any political institution.

A More Learned Population Is Good for the Nation

By Eric Johnson

We ought to send more people to college.

Our country is rich enough, our lives are long enough, and our economy is productive enough to justify the costs of providing more opportunity for our citizens to think and read and learn a little longer.

That doesn’t mean just encouraging more high school graduates to attend institutions of higher learning, but also reimagining our universities as centers of lifelong learning. Higher education should be better equipped to serve the adult learners, part-time students, and veterans who already outnumber “traditional,” just-out-of-high-school enrollees.

Offering that kind of broad access is costly. Teaching is an expensive, labor-intensive enterprise, and too many students enroll without ever earning a degree. The six-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time bachelor’s degree students was 59 percent in 2012, the most recent data available from the National Center for Education Statistics. At open-admission institutions, the rate was just 32 percent.

Those numbers need to be better. But the solution is to improve the quality of higher education, not simply limit access. Casting a wide net is the only way to preserve the fundamentally American creed of democratic opportunity—a commitment to cultivating the intellectual life and talent of all citizens, not just a select few.

Broad education is intrinsically good, in the sense that knowing more is generally preferable to knowing less. But educating more of our people for longer is also the most reliable way of improving the country’s long-term economic prospects.

The twentieth century was the American century in no small measure because we embraced the idea of universal schooling, building human capital at a furious pace while other nations lagged behind. Even amid the hardships of Depression and war, the wisdom of expanding public education won out. As late as 1940, fewer than a quarter of Americans earned a high school diploma. Today, the share is nearly 9 in 10.

“America pulled far ahead of other industrial economies in both education and income,” wrote Harvard economist Claudia Goldin in a famed 1998 study of the high school movement. “America had graduated from high school; the people in virtually no other country had.”

It’s easy to forget that the expansion of public schooling, now widely regarded as one of the most prudent undertakings in American history, was deeply controversial. Sending every child to school was for a very long time considered wasteful and decadent. “Indifference, contempt, and hostility confronted the early movements for establishing and maintaining systems of free public schools,” recounted Trinity School Professor Edgar Knight, writing in the 1916 volume Public Education in North Carolina.

It took decades, and fierce public battles over taxation, to expand public education up through high school. That same debate is now playing out over the scale and role of public higher education. Nationally, about 34 percent of our younger citizens earn a university degree (In North Carolina, it’s fewer than 3 in 10). Raising that number is “of dubious benefit,” contended the Pope Center’s Duke Cheston in 2012. “If we spend the resources required to increase bachelor’s degree attainment to 32 percent” — the UNC system’s modest near-term goal for North Carolina — “how much better off will we really be?”

More than enough to justify the costs of educating our fellow citizens. Last year, Standard & Poor’s estimated that an extra year of schooling would boost American economic growth by half-a-trillion dollars, with further benefits compounding over generations. “Education not only benefits workers today, but also children tomorrow,” the S&P analysts wrote.

A more educated citizenry makes for a more productive, more flexible economy. Just as universal primary schooling helped prepare a growing nation for the transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy, a broadening pool of college graduates should help prepare our people for the more advanced challenges of an information and technology-based world. If our colleges are not readying students for those challenges, that is a reason to improve them, rather than abandon the whole enterprise.

Indeed, walking away from the notion of a broader and more accessible education would mean abandoning one of the core values of both our nation and our species. Education isn’t just a means for achieving greater national wealth. Our shared prosperity, rather, frees us to achieve greater cultivation and human flourishing.

“The vast increase of wealth which has come in the train of labor-saving inventions…will in time place sufficient leisure for continued self-culture within the reach of even the humblest,” wrote social reformer Felix Adler in 1889. He saw the development of mass education, enabled by economic growth that lifted Americans out of mere subsistence, as both necessary to democracy and vital to progress in the arts and sciences.

Empirically, we can measure the humanizing effects of education in less criminality, improved health, more stable families, and greater participation in self-government among those who complete college. But perhaps of greater significance are the things we cannot easily measure, like the fundamental value of scientific discovery and humanistic insight. 

We improve our odds of such riches, both material and abstract, by keeping the doors of our colleges open wide. Advancing knowledge and reason first raised us above beasts, then lifted us out of savagery. We are not yet so perfect in morals and intellect that we should quit striving now.

(Editor’s note: Part II of this debate, featuring Jesse Saffron’s conservative viewthat expanding college access, though well-intentioned, creates substantial economic and social costsis available here.)