Editorial: Little reward in degree inflation

By Staff Editorial

Convincing yourself that you’re competing doesn’t make you competitive. Surely ringing true… Convincing yourself that you’re competing doesn’t make you competitive. Surely ringing true for job candidates and entrepreneurs, this message more pressingly applies to America’s educational future. Policymakers, both state and federal, best keep this in mind.

On Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden unveiled a White House plan to directly engage state governors in federal efforts to raise college graduation rates. The administration’s goal is to graduate more college students per capita than any other country by 2020, and he wants state leaders to begin the push by hosting “graduation summits.” Biden said that would require increasing the percentage of 20- to 34-year-olds with bachelor’s degrees 16 points, from the current 42 percent to 58 percent, that of South Korea.

Call for collegiate concern is undoubtedly warranted. Americans spend $400 billion on higher education per year, but four-year undergraduate programs graduate less than half of students within six years, according to the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s report, “Pathways to Prosperity Project.” And the study puts completion rates at U.S. two-year institutions in a darker light — just 30 percent walk out in caps and gowns within three years.

The prospect of once again sampling the sweet taste of educational pre-eminence is surely glamorous, perhaps edging on intoxicating. But we’re not impressed.

It’s not only the Harvard researchers who deem a goal like President Barack Obama’s administration’s — increasing the proportion of degree-holding young people almost 2 percent per year — impossible. Even if we could conceivably expect a joint federal-state coalition to deliver on such a herculean undertaking, we think flooding the land with college diplomas would neglect larger problems. It’s one thing to support college students once they enroll, but it’s another to reform the classrooms they sit in before they ever learn what SAT stands for.

Specifically, any kind of educational “summits” that Joe Biden drags governors to must also address K-12 education — the K-12 decadence is what’s depressing college graduation rates, anyway. From our perspective, progress in our country’s primary and secondary schools is slowed by five primary evils: demographic-dependant educational inequality, improperly administered standardized testing (No Child Left Behind), a changing employment landscape, a growing — though of course baseless and dangerous — public distrust of educators and a nationwide resistance to the idea that maybe college isn’t “for everyone.”

Combating these evils should be viewed as a primary necessity, one that deserves the time and attention of America’s most capable problem solvers. Encouraging colleges to engage in degree inflation — by reaching out to students who have dropped out and offering more accessible and effective academic advisers — will only go so far. But if it’s real, long-lasting competition with a globalizing world the United States desires, its leaders should first direct their focus on K-12 education.