Miller Center Debate: To Compete Globally, Do Americans Really Need College?

March 1, 2010 — The United States ranks 10th among industrialized nations in the number of 25- to 34-year olds with college degrees, behind Canada, Japan, Korea and several European countries. China and Japan are quickly catching up and potentially changing the global economic arena.

This was the backdrop of a debate, held Friday and sponsored by the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs. The debate – on whether the U.S. workforce needs more college graduates to remain a world-class economic power – was the first of this season's Miller Center National Debates series.

Margaret Spellings, former U.S. education secretary under President George W. Bush, and Michael Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund, argued that college was essential.

They were opposed by Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, and George Leef, research director of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, who argued that subsidizing higher education is a waste of money, and that many good jobs can be had without college degrees.

The debate, moderated by Paul Solman, business and economics correspondent for "PBS NewsHour," took place in front of a live audience at the National Press Club in Washington.

In her opening remarks, Spellings, now president and CEO of Spellings and Company, called education the "great equalizer" that leads to better jobs, more success for a more diverse population and a way out of poverty.

"The income difference between those with a four-year college degree and those who never completed high school is $50,000 a year every year," she said. "The lifetime earning differential between those with four years of college and those with a high school diploma is about a million dollars."

Vedder, also an economics professor at Ohio University, countered by questioning whether increasing college enrollment would necessarily lead to better global competitiveness.

Education does not always reflect the labor market's needs, he said. "The Department of Labor … has projected job growth for the decade 2008 to 2018, and in only seven of the 30 occupations that are expected to have the most numeric growth, the needed education is a bachelor's degree or more," he said.

More college attendees would also create more college dropouts, lower the quality of the overall student body, and create more personal and national debt, he argued.

"Increasingly, mail carriers, barbers, waitresses, truck drivers have bachelor's degrees," Vedder said. "Now, is subsidizing college for these workers wise when we have trillion-dollar budget deficits and even larger Social Security and Medicare liabilities?"

College graduates might be more productive anyway because they might be brighter and more disciplined by nature than their counterparts who have only a high school diploma, he said.

Lomax responded that America is the land of opportunity and the best way to fulfill that promise is through education.

"It is our willingness to give our children – all of our children – the opportunity to aspire, succeed and excel that sets us apart, and that opportunity is the foundation of our position as a world-class economic power and as a world-class democracy," he said.

Leef then countered that no direct or causal link exists between more college degrees and the "creation of more high-skill, high-pay jobs"; that college coursework does not necessarily "enhance a person's productivity"; and that most jobs simply do not require the in-depth knowledge that a college education provides.

According to Leef, more college graduates could also lead to more credential inflation. "The problem with that is it shuts out a lot of people who don't have college degrees from perfectly good jobs they could do," he said.

Spellings then wondered why Americans seem to want their own children to go to college, but do not seem to understand that other people might want the same for their children. She also argued that just because the higher education system is broken, does not mean that we should not try to fix it.

Vedder questioned the purported $50,000 income difference between college graduates and non-graduates, stating that other factors come into play that make this figure inaccurate.

The debaters also discussed the role of higher education in meeting the needs of the job market and of college students, the technological skills required for today's labor jobs, global competitiveness, inequality, the role of K-12 education, and the evolving ways of learning.

In his closing statement, Vedder concluded that having more college graduates is not worth the investment.

"Why should we spend more expanding enrollments in our highly inefficient and increasingly costly colleges when nearly half the students drop out and many take jobs for which a college education is not needed?," he said. "... Why should our deficit-ridden nation increase spending, promoting hedonistic behavior at country club-like schools, particularly when surveys show college graduates' ability to read is declining and that they are remarkably ignorant of basic facts relating to our heritage?"

Lomax countered that increased educational opportunity benefits everyone.

"Education pays off for families in more economically secure lives," he said. "It pays off for communities and citizens who can afford to support good schools and roads and who will vote and volunteer more often. It pays off for companies and economies in well-educated workforces and competitive advantage over domestic and international economic rivals. As a nation, our history tells us we prosper when we invest in our future."

The Miller Center National Debates are produced for broadcast by MacNeil/Lehrer Productions. "PBS NewsHour" airs highlights from each debate, and PBS stations around the country will air them throughout the spring.

WHTJ-Charlottesville and WCVE-Richmond will air the first debate on April 1 at 11 p.m. and on April 4 at 10:30 a.m. Check local listings for details.

Other Miller Center debates will examine end-of-life care, the cost of higher education and the impact of the Internet on democracy.

More information, including debate video and a transcript, is online here .

— By Kim Curtis