In his first address to Congress after being sworn in as President of the United States, President Obama laid out an aggressive progressive agenda for increasing the number of Americans with college degrees over the next ten years. "We will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal," he promised Americans, "by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world."
President Obama's goal here completely misdiagnoses what ails our higher education system. A culture that encourages and a government that and subsidizes higher education has driven up costs, pushed underqualified students into institutions that they’re not ready for, propped up a student debt bubble and hurt the quality of our higher educational institutions.
THE MARGINAL STUDENT
What’s odd about the President’s agenda is that he recognizes some of these problems. In that same 2009 speech to Congress, he acknowledged that “we have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation. And half of the students who begin college never finish.”
Modern American postsecondary education is thought of as a “bundled” model: everything comes included and nothing is severable: professors, brick-and-mortar buildings, books, testing, certification and so on. But in an economy where so many recent graduates are saddled with student debt and can’t find jobs with the skills they’ve acquired, it might be time to rethink the way the system works for everyone.
Traditional bundled models of higher education – this includes both two- and four-year programs - will be beneficial to the students who are prepared for the academic rigor and willing to make financial plans in order to not overstretch themselves. What’s important is academic preparedness and choosing a course of study, including the level of degree, that is right for a student. The bundled model isn’t for everyone, and it’s increasingly not for the students who are borderline college applicants.