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The case for making college mandatory

The Exchange
Michelle Obama Gives Speech At Bowie State University Commencement
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COLLEGE PARK, MD - MAY 17: Graduates cheer as First lady Michelle Obama delivers the commencement speech during the Bowie State University graduation ceremony at the Comcast Center on the campus of the University of Maryland May 17, 2013 in College Park, Maryland. Obama received and Honorary Doctor of Laws degree before addressing the 600 graduates of Maryland's oldest historically black university and one of the ten oldest in the country. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Only about 75% of high school students graduate on schedule — so is it time to start thinking of making college mandatory? Some researchers think so.

Richard Reeves and Quentin Karpilow of the Brookings Institution wrote recently in favor of compulsory K-16 education, rather than the familiar K-12 requirement. “We need to make post-secondary education the norm for everyone, not just the advantaged,” they wrote. “In today’s economy, a high school diploma is not enough; now, more than ever, college is the gateway to the American Dream.”

This is not a pragmatic idea likely to go anywhere soon, as the two authors acknowledge. On the other hand, the American model for taxpayer-funded public education hasn’t changed in a century. Mississippi was the last state to make secondary school mandatory, roughly 100 years ago. Since then, some states have raised the age at which high-school students can drop out of school, to as high as 18. There’s also been a stronger social emphasis on finishing school, with high school graduation rates rising to the highest levels since the 1970s.

But the qualifications required for a successful career in today’s information economy are rocketing upward much faster than graduation rates, with the education gap getting wider, not narrower. At the same time, growing income inequality has focused more attention on the importance of a college degree in helping people get ahead. The unemployment rate is just 3.4% for college grads, while it’s 6.4% for high-school grads with no college and 9.8% for high school dropouts.

The economic equalizer?

The conventional wisdom about college is that it’s an economic equalizer, giving kids from low-income families many of the same opportunities as privileged kids. Not exactly. “Colleges are basically machines for the replication of inequality,” Reeves said in an interview with Yahoo Finance. “Perfectly appropriate actions on the part of parents lead to this kind of inequality.”

Since college is expensive and demanding, it favors students who come from families with the money and other resources to see their kids through all four years. Less expensive state schools and community colleges are supposed to help students who can’t afford a name-brand private university. But budget cuts have left those schools considerably more expensive as well. Some students hesitate to take out loans to help pay their way, given the iffy job market for new grads. Many students who start out at less expensive schools drop out, barely better off for their efforts and expenditures.

As the skills required to prosper in a high-tech global economy get increasingly sophisticated, meanwhile, advanced education is actually helping elite families become more entrenched, not less, as scholar Charles Murray argues in the recent book Coming Apart. Elites with a premier education are also grabbing a larger share of income in most developed countries, one reason inequality is worsening.

Making college mandatory, or extending the maximum age for compulsory education to 22 or thereabouts, would only be plausible if education through that level were funded and regulated by federal, state or local governments, as public high schools are now. There would undoubtedly be large variations in quality by institution, with many students who could afford to still opting to go private. The idea, however, is that it would boost the nation’s educational baseline and provide more of the intellectual firepower — often referred to as human capital — many economists believe is necessary if the U.S. economy is going to flourish in the future while living standards  rise.

Expanding college education isn't the only way to boost economic productivity. Billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel funds $100,000 fellowships for young entrepreneurs who aren't motivated by classroom learning to quit college for two years to start a business or take on other real-life challenges. Other programs help workers develop technical training needed for specific jobs, such as high-tech manufacturing, which can cost far less than a full college education yet still lead to a good job with solid income.

At the moment, there's little political support for a dramatic increase in college enrollments anyway, at least not if it costs money. It’s expensive enough funding elementary and secondary education, especially given the disappointing results we get in the United States, based on the amount of money we spend relative to other countries. With Washington in a budget-cutting mood, any proposal to suddenly ramp up education spending isn’t likely to get a happy reception.

But Reeves and others are trying to challenge a few basic assumptions about education and raise the standards some policymakers aim for. “We may think college isn’t for everyone, but 50 years ago a lot of people were saying high school isn’t for everyone,” Reeves points out. K-20, anyone?

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.

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