Phi Beta Cons

David Brooks on Obama’s Community-College Plan

Writing in today’s NYT, David Brooks looks favorably at Obama’s community-college plan. There’s a little to agree with, and much to disagree with, in the piece.

Here’s what I agree with. Brooks takes issue with the common assertion that students are dropping out of college because they just can’t afford it. Brooks says that it’s far more often the case that they’re academically unprepared, emotionally disengaged, or having too much trouble at home. There’s very little that government at any level can do about the last of those problems, although if the feds would stop engendering the economic boom and bust cycles, that would help somewhat. As for the academic and emotional problems that keep students from succeeding, they’re rooted in our abominable K-12 system that excuses dismal results and inculcates false beliefs among students that they’re doing very well. Trying to deal with those educational and attitudinal problems after high school is awfully late in the game — like trying to make up a four-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter. There’s nothing the federal government can do to fix the problems of K-12, but Obama could give a speech pointing out that parents concerned about their children’s education should look for ways of escaping the public school trap.

That’s about as likely as the sun rising in the west tomorrow.

What I disagree with is Brooks’ idea that because college graduation rates have remained about the same for the last 35 years, “America has squandered its human capital advantage.” (He also suggests that that’s the reason why income growth has stagnated.) College seat time and degrees are neither necessary nor sufficient for the development of human capital. I don’t know if America ever had a human-capital advantage, but our economy was more robust than any in the world back when few people went beyond high school. The stagnation in income growth is caused by the government’s increasing drag on the economy, not a shortage of people with college credentials.

Nor do I share Brooks’ enthusiasm for Obama’s plan. We have had lots of federal plans to solve educational problems in the past. They all sound wonderful. They all spend lots of money but accomplish little or nothing. This plan sets up an “innovation fund.” Does anyone believe that educrats won’t figure out how to grab that money without doing anything they aren’t already doing? We should never expect much good to come from political action, because the politicians and bureaucrats who make the decisions won’t gain anything from being right or lose anything if they’re wrong. To the extent that people want better skills and knowledge, that is far more apt to come from individual effort and free-market contracts (as with the many technical institutes that offer a great range of vocational training) than from federal programs.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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