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Educated, but for what?

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Esther Cepeda
March 27, 2011
— Vice President Biden asked America’s governors last week to increase the number of college graduates in their states by 50 percent in order to create at least 8 million additional graduates by the end of the decade.

This, Biden said, is the necessary prerequisite to meet President Obama’s goal of seeing the U.S. have the “best-educated work force and the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.” In his State of the Union address two months ago, Obama said America could “win the future,” at least in part, by boosting our country’s ability “to compete for the jobs and industries of our time … to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.”


Before the governors, Biden introduced the “First in the World” initiative and two other grant programs designed to help states increase their college graduation rates, and reward those that do. The programs, worth about $200 million in incentives, were presented to governors along with a document outlining free or low-cost common sense strategies for achieving the increases.


There’s no denying that we need more students to cross the finish line on the college educations they commit themselves to. But this particular effort, as part of the larger plan to create the best-educated work force, is way too loosey-goosey.


Let’s start with the goal of creating at least 8 million additional graduates by 2020. Graduates in what?


Unfortunately, high school students today are constantly persuaded that the only reason to go to college is to “get a good job,” with little regard given to the seemingly arcane notion that one goes to gain knowledge—maybe even enlightenment—and practice thinking critically. A college degree is treated as something akin to job training certification. Students are rarely asked to consider what kind of lifestyle, emotional satisfaction or intellectual challenge they want to strive toward in a career. Lacking such insight, opportunities to graduate in the best position to find employment are lost—or dreams of devoting a lifetime to poetry or music are dashed on the rocky cliffs of pragmatism.


Completed degrees in any concentration should be cause for celebration. According to the U.S Department of Education, a scant 49 percent of all students who begin college complete their studies within six years. Fifteen percent take longer to finish and 36 percent just quit altogether.


However, when students are encouraged to attend and finish college to secure a financial future—without emphasis on what studies will pay off in the long term—they risk graduating with heavy student loan debts and degrees that offer few opportunities to repay those debts. Students who will be the first in their family to attend college are at the highest risk for not actually attaining that ticket to “a good job” without attention to this detail. This is surely not what the White House intends.


If the federal government is going to put more money into increasing college graduation rates for the purpose of boosting global work force competitiveness, why not put an explicit focus on the STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—fields of study? Those are the academic and professional disciplines that can put the country in the best possible position to create innovators and entrepreneurs who will be able to “out-build” the rest of the world.


As a pleasant side effect, homing in on these fields could help women achieve higher standards of living. In a recent report on the economic and social well-being of American women, the White House said women and men are now attaining bachelor’s degrees at the same rate—today, women ages 25-34 are actually more likely than men of the same age to have a college degree—but women still make less money.


This is due in no small part to women earning degrees that lead to low-paying jobs in social work, primary education and health care. Women earn less than half of all bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and physical sciences, and less than 20 percent of all engineering and computer science degrees, a number that has been declining for the last decade.


But even if limited federal resources aren’t used in such ways that bolster two policy initiatives at once, college completion goals must be more exact, more supportive of overarching policies, and executed with an eye toward mitigating as many negative consequences as possible. After all, measurable educational outcomes are only as good as the objectives set out to be achieved.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group; email estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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