President Obama says that every American should get an associates degree because college education is the road the middle class. Now he's announced that the federal government will foot the bill. On face value, this proposal addresses economic inequality and creates opportunity the masses. But the data is unequivocal: college offers low value at a high cost, and high schools are so broken that almost half of graduates are unprepared for college life. Instead of deepening the national debt and creating a new entitlement, President Obama should develop nuanced policy that includes education reform in high schools, increased emphasis on vocational training and subsidized college education for students who demonstrate academic merit.
The most important reason Obama's proposal is flawed is because many of the students President Obama sends to community college are likely to fail. Statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Education show that students who graduate in the bottom 40 percent of their high school classes have a 25 percent chance of graduating in 8.5 years. Right now the fact remains that almost half of high school graduates are not college-ready. Instead of sending unprepared students to college, the government should be encouraging these students to get apprenticeships or vocational training by investing in these programs.
Likewise, only 5 of the top 25 fastest growing occupations over the next 10 years require college diplomas. "A huge percentage of our nation's human capital is created in on-the-job training, not through formal schooling," Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University, told NPR. By officially endorsing college education, the federal government tells students that college is must. For blue-collar works, however, it isn't.
To make matters worse, colleges themselves are broken: they offer little value at a high cost. In his book Academically Adrift, Richard Arum finds that one in three college graduates shows no statistically significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills. A 2006 study funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that approximately 20 percent of bachelor's students and 30 percent of associates degree students had only 'basic quantitate skills,' which means that they could not estimate if their car had enough gas to get to the gas station, for example Three quarters of students at two-year colleges and more than half of bachelor's candidates could not score at the proficient level of literacy.
Students know that the education they are receiving in college is not useful. An Udemy survey found that 61 percent of employees believe there is a skills gap after graduation, Harvard Business Review reports. 54 percent of respondents said that they do not know everything they need to know in order to do their current jobs. About one third of these workers said that their lack of skills led them to either miss a promotion of not get a job. The key skills missing are usually computer and technical skills, which students learn through online courses, formal courses, or on-the-job training. Of the college educated survey respondents, 41 percent said their college education helps them succeed on the job.
Instead of reforming colleges, Obama plans to prop up the failing colleges with government funding. Such a policy will bankrupt the American public while giving colleges no incentive to offer real value or lower exorbitant costs.
Despite all of these problems, the concept of free college education is a good one; it just needs to be implemented in a rational, thought out way. Instead of structuring community college as an entitlement, with every American qualifying for free tuition, the federal government should structure it as a scholarship program. Students who demonstrate that they are college-ready, have academic merit in high school, or are pursuing a STEM field should be granted funding accordingly. This way, instead of inefficiently spending money on anyone who wants to go to community college, the government can target funding at those who will benefit most.
College education is important because for many Americans it is a route to the middle class. President Obama's proposal is flawed because its sweeping nature ignores much of the nuance in U.S. education policy. A data-driven approach to college education policy would do much more to benefit the U.S. economy and America's next generation of workers.