The idea of expanding the number of people that attend post-secondary education is particularly hot at the moment. The Obama administration’s recent call for the U.S. to attain the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by 2020 has generated the most attention, but the basic idea is being played out in other countries.
Criticism of the idea comes from a number of angles: There are those that question whether the labour market needs (or can accommodate) that many graduates. Others are concerned with the targets – citing the difficulty of our college systems to meet demand. Some argue that higher education will be (further) watered-down and lose its value. Many argue that there are not enough college-ready students available, even if we could accommodate them.
But many people find the idea of expanding the number of college graduates very appealing. And its appeal is not based solely on ‘rational’ notions of productivity improvements and the like. Its appeal is also cultural. We like the idea of more people going to college because it taps into a collective sense of upward mobility. We associate greater access to college with opportunity. “College for all” may be the knowledge economy’s “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” (Herbert Hoover, 1928).
Peter Wood wrote an interesting piece earlier this week in the Times Higher Education supplement in which he puts the issue of access to college into a cultural and political context. In his wide-ranging essay (references include the Battle of Waterloo, terrorism and the cultural wars), Woods suggests that the notion of increasing participation in higher ed is both a reflection and reinforcement of our collective hope for social mobility. Ultimately, he argues, this hope will lead to disappointment:
“I don’t see our history of mass education leading to careers for many as clerks, baristas, and dog walkers as an indefinitely sustainable pattern. It is, of course, built on hope. Those college graduates have had little tastes of intellectual nihilism in college, but these were always sweetened with the sugar of social justice preaching. So they have Obama-sized “hope” of changing the system along with their own very American hope of personal advancement. Flood this system with 15 or 16 million additional students, many of them basically uneducable, and will we maintain this delicate combination of illusory social “hope” and semi-realistic personal ambition? I doubt it. The system somewhere has a tipping point at which the university becomes a giant holding pen for young people who have few other options and no real future.
One advantage is that such a system would temporarily lower the unemployment rate by taking people out of the job market. But the disadvantage is that people are quick to sense futility. Turning the university into a massive system of dependency for the young just isn’t a good idea. Those who favor the massive expansion seem to believe the seldom examined notion that a college education is something like a conveyor belt that turns high school graduates into highly skilled, employable, “knowledge workers.” Indeed, higher education can approximate that model when we have a robust economy, a supply of generally capable and ambitious students, selective admissions standards, and some sort of sane curriculum. These conditions, however, are not fixed, and even before our current economic crisis it had become clear that much of American college education is misaligned with both the job market and the prospect for life-time careers.”