Researchers question reality of Obama’s education goals

Public Policy Consultant Arthur Hauptman says migration into the U.S. accounts for low graduation rates.
Ashley Lane / Graphic Designer

President Barack Obama’s initiative to raise college degree completion rates in America has sparked debate among researchers. In his State of the Union address, Obama spoke of his goal to again make America the country with the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020.

Researchers question whether the goal is achievable and, if so, whether reaching the goal is even necessary. A research conference, sponsored by the American Enterprise, was held Feb. 15 in Washington, to discuss postsecondary education.

Public Policy Consultant Arthur Hauptman spoke at the event and gave various reasons accounting for the lower percent of American college graduates, compared to other countries.

“I think the problems are overstated,” Hauptman said. “If you look at the underlying statistics, the change in ranking is due to the fact that other countries have declining demographics and out migration, while we have in migration and increasing demographics.”

According to Hauptman, the high rates of migration into the United States account for the decreasing rate in college attainment.

“Migration into the U.S. is usually by lower-educated workers, which creates a growing number of people who will bring down our rate of attainment,” Hauptman said.

Hauptman has also written about the confusion between completion rates and attainment rates. Dewayne Matthews, Vice President for Policy and Strategy of the Lumina Foundation, spoke at the conference with Hauptman and agreed that completion and attainment rates are often confused.

“People tend to use completion and attainment synonymously,” Matthews said. “Increasing rates of completion does nothing to address national issue of getting people into and out of college.”

Hauptman said he did not believe focusing on completion rates, as President Obama is doing, represents an accurate look on postsecondary education in the U.S.

“Obama would not count in terms of completion rates because he started at a college in California and finished in Columbia and the completion rates don’t count people who transfer,” Hauptman said. “In addition, the rate changes with full-time and part-time students.”

Matthew Chingos, a fellow in the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings Institution, said he agreed with Hauptman’s fear that focusing on completion rates might harm the quality of postsecondary education.

“We don’t want to increase completion by just handing out more diplomas,” Chingos said.

Matthews also said he agreed increasing completion rates was not the sole answer.

“Increasing rates of completion, in and of itself, does nothing to address the national issue of how do you get more people into and through college,” Matthews said.

Hauptman said he believes, in the end, educational methods are far more important than calculating statistics, and comparing the statistics from the U.S. with foreign countries isn’t significant anyway. He also noted American students have been behind for two decades, so the problem isn’t new.

When looking at rates of college educations, the U.S. has been behind Canada and Finland since at least 1991. Hauptman said he does not think this is an issue which can even be compared.

“There are differences in degree structures, which is one of the difficulties in making these comparisons,” Hauptman said. “It is more valuable to look at strategies that other countries use, than worry about the statistics.”

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