Debate on Need for Graduates Bashes Colleges

March 1, 2010

WASHINGTON -- You have to know you're probably in for a rough time in a debate when one of the people arguing for your "side" is known for telling you you're a shell of your former self. That's how it was for higher education Friday night at a debate at the National Press Club here sponsored by the University of Virginia's Miller Center for Public Affairs, designed to argue the statement: "To remain a world class economic power, the U.S. workforce needs more college graduates." Arguing the negative position were Ohio University's Richard Vedder (a tough critic of colleges' costs and lack of productivity) and George Leef (a libertarian researcher at the John Pope Center for Higher Education Policy), and they discouraged what Leef called a "central planning mindset" that might artificially propel "marginal" students into higher education who might be perfectly well qualified for jobs that don't demand a college degree. Michael Lomax, president of UNCF: the United Negro College Fund, said it would be a mistake for the country to "ration education once again" as it too often did in decades past, letting the growing number of lower-income and minority Americans languish in an undereducated status. Lomax's debating partner agreed that "education is the great equalizer" for those who've too often been shut out of the country's economic upper tier, and said it would be a mistake to "write off" millions of Hispanic and African-American kids as "not having aptitude." But Margaret Spellings, the former U.S. education secretary, made it clear that she didn't just want to pour more Americans into "this broken system" of higher education, language that will resonate with those who followed her administration's policies and rhetoric. "We need a higher education system that's more responsive to the market place.... One of the things we've never asked much of higher education is accountability, and some results orientation." The debate will be broadcast in the coming weeks on PBS stations nationwide.

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