Bell Curve author Charles Murray takes direct aim at higher education in his new book Real Education by asserting that we are wasting our time trying to educate too many people. Murray contends that only 10 to 20 percent of those enrolled in four-year degree programs should actually be there. His pessimistic view of people’s ability to learn ignores not just good evidence to the contrary but the real pressures the American economy is facing. Removing some 80-90 percent of our students in in my state, or just about any state would interrupt the pipeline of skilled workers, making it nearly impossible to meet the needs of a society that has defined postsecondary credentials as an entry point for most professions.
Consider the following:
- The U.S. Department of Labor reports that the country needs more graduates if we are to keep up with, let alone lead, other nations in the global economy.
- By the end of the next president’s first term, there will be three million more jobs requiring bachelor’s degrees and not enough college graduates to fill them.
- 90 percent of the fastest growing job categories, including software engineers, physical therapists, and preschool teachers, 60 percent of all new jobs, and 40 percent of manufacturing jobs will all require some form of postsecondary education.
We need more, not fewer university and community college graduates, even in rural states like mine. South Dakota’s aging population will require 30 percent more health care workers in the coming decades -- and those workers will require degrees. We’re also facing a teacher shortage; educators of all levels need postsecondary education to successfully command and manage a classroom, let alone impart wisdom on elementary and secondary students. Our state also lacks accountants, and the industry has informed us that tomorrow’s professionals will require 150 hours of postsecondary education to successfully complete the Certified Public Accountant’s exam.
Those left out of higher education would have fewer employment options than they do today. Low-wage, low-skill careers are disappearing rapidly, as manufacturing jobs head overseas and American companies are looking for new ways to compete. Those workers who hope to maintain their current standard of living must have some sort of postsecondary credential -- participation in the knowledge-based economy demands it. Without some type of degree, their ability to pay for basics like housing, food, and gas will diminish greatly.
We cannot survive in an international economy by simply working cheaper, as there will always be companies overseas who are willing and able to use unskilled work at a lower cost. If we are to work smarter, our workforce needs to acquire more knowledge and skills that are adaptable in a constantly changing world. The people who have proven to be the most knowledgeable, skilled and adaptable are those with postsecondary credentials. Murray’s suggestions are completely contrary to this. Dummying down our workforce would result in a lower standard of living for most Americans.
The United States has long enjoyed the enviable position as the leader in educational attainment -- just a decade ago, we led all other industrialized nations in this area. That’s no longer the case. Now, we rank tenth behind other nations in the percentage of young adults with postsecondary credentials. The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems indicates that the U.S. will need to produce 63.1 million degrees to match leading nations Canada, Japan and South Korea in the percentage of adults with a college degree by 2025. At our current pace, we would fall short of that threshold by 16 million degrees.
Educating a larger percentage of the population does not amount to “educational romanticism,” as Murray contends. It simply makes sense -- both economically and socially. Higher education allows people of all backgrounds to hone their writing, reading, cognitive and critical thinking skills that enable them to actively participate as citizens. Not everyone who completes a four-year degree will be able to write like William Faulkner -- and some may argue that’s a good thing. But the papers students have to research and write in college are valuable and marketable experiences to future employers who need workers who can craft memos, reports and strategic plans, all valuable skills in the knowledge economy. Moreover, people with postsecondary degrees also tend to be healthier, are more productive throughout their work lives, are more engaged in their communities, more philanthropic and are less likely to be involved in crime.
The State Higher Education Executive Officers are calling on political leaders  make college access and success a national priority. To heed this call, SHEEO believes we need to take immediate action by:
- Targeting low-income and first-generation students (populations who are historically least likely to succeed in college and complete their degree programs), by allocating greater public resources to community colleges and regional four-year institutions, while also providing adequate need-based financial aid.
- Overhauling the notoriously complex financial aid system. We can start by making most of the required data for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid directly transferable from the federal income tax form. Also, Pell Grants should be pegged to students’ basic living costs, rather than tuition, to highlight the responsibility of states and colleges to moderate tuition and fees and to provide grants for tuition to low-income students.
- Developing information systems to better track students’ progress and determine whether they are at risk of dropping out.
In South Dakota, we’re committed to raising our graduation rates by 20 percent by 2010, so we can be competitive both nationally and internationally. To do so, the state is reaching out to nontraditional adult learners by offering more university classes in urban centers. The state’s public institutions are opening our doors to more out-of-state students by cutting our non-resident tuition rates in half. So far, the increase in students has offset any potential revenue shortfall. The state is also providing $5,000 scholarships to students who take more rigorous courses in high school, maintain a B average, receive a 24 on their ACT and pursue their education in South Dakota. We also want to make sure that those students who start college, finish college. To that end, our Board of Regents has tied retention rates to a pool of performance dollars; retention rates are on the rise.
To Murray’s point, people do vary in academic ability, and not everyone can handle the rigors of a postsecondary degree program. I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to spend four years at a flagship state institution, or even two years at their local community college. However, everyone should have at least the option to participate successfully in some form of postsecondary experience -- be it a Ph.D. program or a short-term certificate program for dental assistants. Educators need to help more average Americans and educational elite succeed. It’s common sense. And our future depends on it.
Robert T. Perry is executive director of the South Dakota Board of Regents.