National Press Club

Are More College Graduates Needed? Experts Debate

March 1, 2010 | By Lorna Aldrich |

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Debating whether the United States needs more college graduates, the "pros" cited equal opportunity and equality while the "cons" argued cost and benefits in a program at the Club Friday, Feb. 26.

The event was jointly produced by the Miller Center of the University of Virginia, the Club, and MacNeil/Lehrer Productions. It will air on PBS.

Margaret Spellings, former Secretary of Education, opened the "pro" side, saying college education "breaks the chains of generational poverty.” Her partner on the "pro" side, Michael Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund, cited the difference in earnings between graduates and others - $51,000 per year vs. $32,000. Both Spellings and Lomax suggested that those opposed to increasing the number of graduates wanted to limit opportunities for “other peoples’ children,” but not their own children.

On the "con" side, George Leef, director of research at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, distinguished between current differences in earnings that result from past rates of graduation from likely future differences if more graduates are produced. He cited Bureau of Labor Statistics data that one-third of theater ushers and ticket takers have attended college and half of those have college degrees. His debate partner, Richard Vedder, professor of economics at Ohio University, said that colleges and universities do play an important role in the country, but the issue is whether they should be expanded. Vedder added that 15 percent of mail carriers have college degrees now, but only 3 percent did in 1970.

Vedder and Leef argued that expenditures on higher education do not necessarily create highly skilled jobs. Leef said, “Supply does not create its own demand.”

PBS economics reporter Paul Salmon, the moderator, said 27 percent of the population has a 4-year degree and that the rate is flat among young people. Leef responded the flatness results from a cost/benefit calculation among young people that a degree will not add sufficiently to future earnings to cover the costs.

Vedder said that people entering highly skilled professions such as medicine, law, and engineering do need college educations; he said he is concerned that adding more graduates would not mean adding more highly skilled graduates. He and Leef claimed standards have fallen and that graduates are not well educated. Vedder noted half of college students do not graduate in six years. He said increasing enrollments would increase dropouts. He questioned the costs at a time of national deficits.

While Vedder and Leef lamented the poor preparation of high school graduates and their low chances of success in college, Lomax emphasized the need for support in colleges. He countered the idea that students are not college ready by saying the institutions are not “student ready;” they need to provide remediation. With targeted support, he said, 80 percent of United Negro Scholarship Fund recipients graduate.

Lomax also introduced the idea that college education produces civically engaged students. A democracy needs a vibrant population, he said.

Spelling emphasized the need for accountability and transparency in universities so consumers of education would know what they are buying, with which Lomax concurred.

Salmon asked for areas of agreement and discovered that all four participants support community colleges. All also expressed a need to strengthen elementary and high school education.