The 2008 presidential campaign has centered on big economic and foreign policy issues. Almost completely overlooked have been the candidates’ positions on higher education.

In McCain’s case, that hardly matters because he doesn’t really have much to say. Naturally, he says that the nation needs a more skilled workforce to meet increasing global competition. (Although it sounds good, that idea isn’t true, as we’ll see shortly.) He wants to have the federal government support “innovative approaches to education.” Again, nice — but colleges and universities can come up with innovative approaches without any government action.

McCain also favors simplifying the paperwork required for families to claim federal educational tax benefits. Sure, our tax system is too complicated, but making it somewhat less costly for a few students to go to college won’t make any detectable difference in the nation’s future.

Obama’s higher education ideas deserve more attention. Much of his appeal is aimed at college students and their parents, trying to razzle-dazzle them with his professions of deep concern for them. His ideas would put more students into college and increase federal outlays to support them.

To many, that sounds good. The conventional wisdom is that we need to have a more highly skilled workforce to remain competitive in the global marketplace. Obama expects voters to think: “Being able to compete is essential…making sure workers have more skills helps us compete…therefore it’s smart for the country to put more students through college and that’s what Obama is promising.”

Did you spot the slyly hidden assumption? It’s that getting a college degree necessarily does something to make an individual more skilled in ways that enhance the ability of American firms to compete.  


The sad truth is that college students often gain little or nothing in the way of useful skills that employers need. For every one who takes a demanding curriculum, with courses that lead to deep understanding of a discipline like math or chemistry, there are a dozen who coast through college with a bunch of soft courses in fuzzy fields. They get their degrees, but haven’t even learned how to read and write well or to do the simplest of math. Many are barely more trainable than they would have been if they had gone into the job world right after high school.

A rigorous college education certainly is essential for students who plan to go into science and engineering fields. A structural engineer needs more than on-the-job training. The fact, however, is that only a small percentage of jobs demand extensive academic preparation. For most entry-level work, all employers need is trainability.

Nevertheless, Obama calls for the creation of the “American Opportunity Tax Credit.” That would mean that the first $4,000 of college cost would be free to most Americans. All students would have to do is to complete 100 hours of “public service” work each year. Since liberal Democrats will no doubt decide exactly what counts as “public service,” we should anticipate that this would channel more labor into left-wing activist groups such as the infamous ACORN.

Under Obama’s plan, large numbers of college students who used to pay that $4,000 get to transfer the cost to the American taxpayer. That will boost the already bloated federal budget by billions. In return, the education establishment lures in a few more students — or as a professor I know prefers to call them, “tuitioners” — and “public service” groups find themselves with more bodies.

Will it improve our workforce? No, because college seat time has almost nothing to do with job capabilities. The fact is that few jobs demand any advanced academic preparation, even those where a degree is “required.” Many employers now have a degree requirement just as a screening device so they don’t have to consider people with only high school educations, but what the students studied and how well they did doesn’t matter. Basic competence and trainability is all that most companies are looking for.

The United States has already so oversold higher education that large numbers of college graduates end up doing mundane jobs that a high school student could easily learn to do. According to data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 47 percent of fitness and aerobics trainers now have college degrees, as do 31 percent of flight attendants and 25 percent of retail sales managers. The ability to do those jobs and others like them doesn’t depend on anything learned in college.

Our economy would do just as well if fewer students went to college.

What Obama’s plan boils down to is a clever scheme for the care and feeding of two liberal special interest groups. The education establishment is in love with his egalitarian, multicultural visions. It supports him overwhelmingly. Higher education leaders will denounce corporate greed all day long, but they’re always eager to spend more. His plan ensures them more money. And as we’ve seen, liberal “public service” groups also benefit.
American taxpayers are already reeling from the bailouts and don’t need to pay for more higher education subsidies.