As recent graduates of four-year colleges struggle under big student debt burdens, the politics of higher education in America are beginning to change — slowly. In his State of the Union speech this month, President Obama noted that, by the end of the decade, “two in three job openings will require some higher education.” The qualifier “some” was telling. Obama rolled out a plan to offer free community college to all Americans who want it. He praised companies, such as UPS and CVS, that provide apprenticeships and other training options. He touted efforts by employers and community colleges to collaborate on teaching about nursing, coding, and robotics.
Obama’s enthusiastic embrace of a specific type of post-secondary education — one that emphasizes learning specific practical skills rather than acquiring a bachelor’s degree — marks a shift away from the gauzier vision of the last Democratic president. In his 2000 State of the Union speech, Bill Clinton emphasized SAT prep for poor kids, low-interest loans, allowing students to pay for college by performing national service, and other steps to make four-year college affordable to all. Clinton certainly wasn’t dismissing those who aspired to associate’s degrees, but his pitch was calibrated for middle-class parents eager to see their children earn bachelor’s degrees.
Since the Clinton era, the percentage of Americans with such degrees has soared. But peculiar things are happening: Recent graduates are working in fields that don’t require bachelor’s degrees, or failing to find work entirely. Student loan debt is crowding out younger Americans’ ability to buy homes. In this environment, it’s not surprising that the Obama administration is promoting forms of education that, in theory, may lead more directly to steady employment.
The shift in emphasis only goes so far. Obama has already backed off a key funding mechanism for his education agenda: scaling back the tax advantages of so-called 529 accounts, which are most popular with upper-income parents. There’s discontent in the world of higher education finance, but conditions aren’t right for a major overhaul just yet.