Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Creating Opportunity?

I really liked the part of Obama's speech to the joint session of Congress last night (It's not a State of the Union speech, okay? Even if it seems exactly like one. It's not. Really. It's not.) where he talked about education:
Right now, three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma. And yet, just over half of our citizens have that level of education. We have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation. And half of the students who begin college never finish.


It is our responsibility as lawmakers and educators to make this system work. But it is the responsibility of every citizen to participate in it. And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school, vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma. And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It's not just quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country — and this country needs and values the talents of every American. That is why we will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal: by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.
So I might not be a total education wonk like Ben or Sara, but this seems to be really ambitious to me. Perhaps overly ambitious. It's an ideal that sounds really nice, having everyone complete at least a year of postsecondary training of some kind, but it doesn't seem realistic.

After all, as Obama himself pointed out, we have a really high high school drop out rate. It's also really hard to get people to finish college once they start. The problem isn't asking to people to start a postsecondary education, the challenge is making it possible for them to finish it.

I've done enough reporting on college cost and student loans to know that it's really hard to figure out why people drop out of school. Even when you ask them and they say they drop out of school for "financial reasons" it's hard to know what that means. Did the debt burdens they took on become too high? Were they working a full-time job in addition to going to school full-time and they just couldn't keep up after a while? Did they have a sudden medical problem that took over all their savings?

These things are really hard to determine, but the problem with dropping out of college is it's kind of a double-whammy. Not only do you have to start repaying your loans, you also didn't get the degree that was supposed to get you a better job to help you pay them back.

The result here perhaps isn't that we need more opportunities for people to start post-secondary schooling (although if we can increase high school graduation rates so more can actually have the opportunity for it, that'd be awesome) but perhaps we need to figure out a way for those who start to get something worthwhile out of it -- in the end, that probably means making sure more people graduate.

Obama has the right instinct in creating more opportunity, but that opportunity should count for something other than saddling students with debt they can't pay off.

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