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Is a College Education Essential for Americans?

March 17, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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A series of debates sponsored by the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs address whether America needs more college graduates to remain competitive on a global level, or whether the emerging job markets favor people without degrees. Paul Solman moderates.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: Does the U.S. need more college graduates in its work force to remain competitive in the global economy? That was the central question at the kickoff of a new season of national debates hosted by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs.

Former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund, argued that we need more college graduates. George Leef, director of research at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Richard Vedder, professor of economics at Ohio University, argued that many jobs being created today don’t require college degrees.

Here’s an excerpt, moderated by “NewsHour” economics correspondent Paul Solman.

PAUL SOLMAN: Is it not the case that the United States needs to have a more and more sophisticated work force? Isn’t it the case that, if other countries with whom we’re competing are becoming more sophisticated, that that’s a challenge to us, George?

GEORGE LEEF, director of research, John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy: Oh, it’s a challenge, but putting more people through college is not the way to meet it.

At the margin — remember, we’re not talking here about are we going to educate most of the Americans who — who have high skills and high aptitude, the high-SAT kids, the motivated students. They can — they’re going to go to college. The question is, are we going to get a few more at the margin into college?

That’s what we’re debating.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, more than a few. I mean…

GEORGE LEEF: Now, the United States economy is going to remain exceptionally vibrant, whether we have a few more who — marginal students who have gone through college or not.

What we depend upon are the — the engineers and the doctors and the lawyers. Those people are going to go to college. Putting a few more people through college at the margin is not going to affect anything in our economic competitiveness.

PAUL SOLMAN: Secretary Spellings?

MARGARET SPELLINGS, former secretary of education: Here’s what I’m worried about with that line of reasoning, is, if I’m a Hispanic parent, and in my home state of Texas, we’re going to be a majority-minority work force by 2020, Hispanic Americans today have an 11 percent chance of having a baccalaureate degree by age 29.

And implicit in this, let’s have a few more, what, we should have, you know, 12 percent chance of having a college education in this country if you’re Hispanic? That’s just wrong. And I don’t — you know, especially in a place where you’re trying to build a vibrant economy with that kind of demographic.

PAUL SOLMAN: Why is it wrong?

MARGARET SPELLINGS: Because it will — we will not be able to compete with the world. We will have an undereducated group of folks. The majority of our people will be undereducated in the global knowledge economy.

PAUL SOLMAN: And what will they wind up doing for a living?

MARGARET SPELLINGS: They will end up being the service workers for our intellectual property that lives in other parts of the world, I fear. We don’t know yet, in fact.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, you, a Cabinet member of the George W. Bush administration, are worried about increasing inequality?

MARGARET SPELLINGS: I am.

PAUL SOLMAN: Michael Lomax, I assume that you are…

MICHAEL LOMAX, president, United Negro College Fund: Well, that’s why we’re on the same side here.

MICHAEL LOMAX: We both are…

PAUL SOLMAN: Were you surprised to find this out, by the way?

MARGARET SPELLINGS: We’ve met before.

MICHAEL LOMAX: You know, I think that this — I don’t view this as a Democrat or a Republican issue. I view this as a national issue.

We — my belief is — and we see this. Many conservatives, people who call themselves Republicans, Democrats, independents believe that it’s in our nation’s interest to ensure that low-income, kids of color, who come from households where no one has attained an advanced educational degree, that we’ve got to invest in ensuring that they have the same educational opportunities as young people who come from a more privileged background.

And they have the same capacity. They have the capacity to work hard and to learn and to excel, if — if we hold them to high expectations, if we give them rigorous academic course work, and if we put good teachers in their classrooms. These kids that you want to write off as not having aptitude, I believe, have the same capacity as any other child.

RICHARD VEDDER, professor of economics, Ohio University: The reality is, let’s talk about the real world, not a hypothetical world. The real world is — and this is from inside “Higher Education,” a publication in the field, of only a week ago.

The graduation rate, five-year graduation rate in the STEM disciplines, science, technology, engineering and mathematics, among Latinos or Hispanics is 22.1 percent. It’s 18.4 percent for blacks. Now, that isn’t to say we should write off these people. And maybe it means we need to do more remedial work and so forth.

But the reality is, the way colleges are operating today, we aren’t getting that. And what I’m fearful of is, if we just mindlessly push, say go into college, and then especially go into science and technology because that’s where the future lies, we’re going to have more students with huge student loan debts, $40,000, $50,000, $60,000, $80,000 with two years education taking $10-a-year — $10-an-hour jobs, and failing.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, you think it might exacerbate the inequality?

RICHARD VEDDER: It could very well.

GWEN IFILL: Check the listings of your local public television station to see the entire debate.