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Michael J. Wilson

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Are Too Many People Going to College?

Posted: 12/08/09 07:03 PM ET

I know that I'm not as smart as Barack Obama, but I am educated enough (and lucky enough) to be a part of the 82.8% of folks who have a job. Trust me, I know that things could be different; I am from Detroit. I also know that education isn't the only answer to individual employment challenges. But the correlation that stuck with me the most from my service at the Department of Labor during the Clinton years was the one between learning and earning which can be summarized as simply, "The more you learn, the more you earn."

While that notion clearly inspires the crassest economic aspirations amongst us, it isn't enough. Not with dropout rates in some urban areas exceeding 50%. Combined with unemployment rates among African-American and Hispanic males at over 34%, and a "real" unemployment rate for the general population at 17.2%, it's clear that the need for education is as strong as ever.

So Obama's campaign goal of having more college graduates than any other country in the world by 2020 is Kennedyesque in its scope and ambition. But unlike the space program, we do not have a direct Khrushchev-ian competitor. China, India, and Japan are sufficiently different from us to make direct comparisons challenging. In addition, as most of us know, the finish line isn't at age 22 when you get your B.A. directly after having gone to high school. It's much more complicated than that.

In fact, the real strength of America's higher education system is the diversity of options. Everyone doesn't graduate from high school, go to their state school and graduate in four years. The U.S. system of community colleges, public and private colleges, and for-profit colleges provides a wealth of higher education opportunities for potential students.

Who are potential students? Aside from traditional students, there are working parents with jobs, unemployed manufacturing workers with aspirations for white collar jobs, early retirees with active minds, GED recipients with hopes for better skills and education - you name the demographic and it exists.

Recently, my friend Julianne Malveaux, President of Bennett College in North Carolina was on NPR talking about education. She spoke about the "experts" who talk about too many people going to college. She wonders - as do I - if that is code for race, for class, or for gender. Think about it, at one time higher education wasn't for all of us - it meant white, male, and wealthy. President Obama's plan to have millions of college graduates turns that antiquated notion on it's head - he wants as many oars in the water as possible.

And the American public supports him. In a recent poll done for Americans for Democratic Actions Education Fund, we measured the views of the American public regarding higher education and the various kinds of schools. It won't surprise anyone who lives in the real world, but most folks think getting higher education - of any kind - is good, and that whether you attend Harvard, the local community college, take classes online, or attend the big state university, you can improve your skills, develop your mind, and further your education. The President's challenge makes college graduation not only smart, but patriotic; not for just a few of you, but for all of us.

 

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