The Right Community Colleges

While it’s rather unfortunate that President Obama didn’t say many of the things the Monthly recommended in his State of the Union speech on January 25. But he did do something unexpected; he praised community colleges. He said:

Last month, I saw the promise of these schools at Forsyth Tech in North Carolina. Many of the students there used to work in the surrounding factories that have since left town. One mother of two, a woman named Kathy Proctor, had worked in the furniture industry since she was 18 years old. And she told me she’s earning her degree in biotechnology now, at 55 years old, not just because the furniture jobs are gone, but because she wants to inspire her children to pursue their dreams too. As Kathy said, “I hope it tells them to never give up.”

If we take these steps – if we raise expectations for every child, and give them the best possible chance at an education, from the day they’re born until the last job they take – we will reach the goal I set two years ago: by the end of the decade, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

That’s important, but as Ben Miller over at Education Sector points out, it’s not just getting kids to college that counts, it’s what happens once they get there. Miller has what I think is a much more interesting suggestion. Policy should work to encourage students to study the things that are most important for the strength of the American economy.

The need for more students to earn degrees in high-need fields like STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] or nursing or to produce better graduates who go into teaching stresses the fact that more attention must be paid to the majors students select. Understanding this idea is crucial for bridging the gap between the argument over whether we have an oversupply or undersupply of college graduates. The fact is we have too many students in some fields (lawyers especially) and not enough in plenty of others (engineering, nursing). It’s not an oversupply, it’s a poorly distributed supply. If you need any further proof of this, go back and read the Center for American Progress’ recent report on health care training-we aren’t hurting for too few students in health fields, they just aren’t in the right tracks within those fields.

Obama said, “To compete, higher education must be within the reach of every American.” Well yes, but to compete and win, it’s a little more complicated than just putting college in reach.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer