The Rhetorical Rights and Wrongs of the Obama Speech

 (Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I agree with both Jay and Greg about Obama’s speech- first, that it is symbolically important. The endorsement of merit pay and charter schools is very encouraging. Jay is correct however to ask…

There are a couple of items in the President’s speech, however, that I think he’s off base on. For instance, the idea that everyone needs to attend college. In the Carnegie Foundation’s publication Change, Paul Barton wrote that the notion that the U.S. has a dire need for an ever increasing number of college graduates is a myth. “Confusion about the demand for college graduates runs throughout discussions of national workforce needs,” Barton wrote.

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, only 29 percent of all jobs actually required a degree in 2004. The Bureau projects that of the top ten occupations with the largest growth from 2004 to 2014, seventy percent won’t require a college education.

Interestingly, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Education Longitudinal Study reports that 40 percent of its sample attained a two- or four-year degree or higher. Therefore, many people with college degrees have jobs that don’t require them. So it really might be true when your cabbie says he has a Ph.D.

Barton’s clear-eyed presentation of the data reveals a job market far more complex than simply an unmet demand for college-educated job applicants. For example, proponents of greater higher education funding often point to an increasing wage gap between the college educated and those who aren’t.

Barton, however, notes that the wage gap is due largely to the falling earnings of high-school graduates and dropouts rather than to higher earnings for college graduates.

Second, the President’s call for the expansion of preschool programs isn’t supported by the weight of empirical evidence, which generally show small academic gains that quickly fade out.

Overall, however, it was a better speech than I could have dared hope for, demonstrating at least a rhetorical independence from the reactionary forces of the status-quo. Let’s see if the President gets around to backing his fine words with actual reform.

5 Responses to The Rhetorical Rights and Wrongs of the Obama Speech


    The issue isn’t precisely that the country “needs” everyone to go to college.

    I think it’s correct to say that the country probably needs more people to go to college here than do in Europe and Asia. Goldin and Katz show that the reason the 20th century was the American century was that America educated more of its citizens than did any other country.

    The freaknomics summary of this point is good: Goldin and Katz on Education, Technology, and Growth.

    Goldin and Katz also found that higher levels of education produced higher income amongst working class employees.

    They are apparently the first to show that thinking of education and earnings in terms of a simple split between white collar and blue collar employment does not hold. More education produces a wage advantage within the blue collar world, or at least it did in the period they studied.

  2. matthewladner says:

    That’s interesting, and I do buy that we ought not to think of the world as dichotomous between blue and white collar.

    Do the authors address the school of thought that says we are basically preparing our non-college bound students for nothing in particular? That is to say, there is a school of thought that admires European vocational training in K-12, and has gone so far as to ask the question out loud: what has a general diploma holder been prepared to do if they are not going to college?

  3. Brian says:

    First you need to examine those projections and separate replacement demand from demand from the growth in occupations. Occupational growth is much more weighted toward those occupations requiring some post secondary training. Replacement demand is always greatest in industries that employ less skilled workers (think entry level jobs that go to young workers getting their first job as an example).

    Second, if you examine the historical accuracy of labor market demand projections from the BLS you will see that they have consistently (and in some industries dramatically) under estimated the demand for college educated labor. A big reason for that is the inherent difficulty in forecasting the degree to which technologies will change and be adopted in industries.

    Finally, and maybe most importantly, the decline in earnings of high school graduates is the clearest signal of the relative lack of demand for labor that does not have some post secondary education. Thus wether an occupation requires a post secondary degree or not, employers are clearly signaling a preference for labor with post secondary training. A large contributor to that preference is that a HS diploma has largely lost its informational value to employers. It simply does not provide and indication to employers of the skills or abilities of a potential employee thus there is a preference for workers with some college training. The increase in college educated workers (some from outside this country as we move to a more global labor market) has helped offset this increase in demand and helped to keep wages of college educated workers from rising faster.

  4. matthewladner says:

    That’s very interesting- and consistent with the European critique that American high schools are preparing a non-college bound students for approximately nothing.

    And of course a disturbingly high percentage of college students require remediation.

  5. […] a trip to DC, Matthew Ladner debates policy wonks about The Rhetorical Rights and Wrongs of the Obama Speech (Jay P. Greene’s Blog). Bradley Shea of bradley defends his views about The Need […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: