The Rhetorical Rights and Wrongs of the Obama Speech

March 11, 2009

 (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.

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