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Obama's College Grad Goal May Be Off Mark: Expert

Barack Obama

hide captionPresident Barack Obama at the University of Texas, Austin.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

In a visit to the University of Texas, Austin Monday, President Barack Obama reiterated a goal he made in his February 2009 speech to a joint session of Congress to put the U.S. on course to once again become the world leader in percentage of population with college degrees.

The president linked the nation regaining its economic dominance in years to come to its recapturing of the lead in college graduates.

But it ain't necessarily so, says Grover Whitehurst, an education expert at the Brookings Institute.

Whitehurst inconveniently points out that comparing one nation's college completion rate to another's won't necessarily tell you which one has the stronger economy.

He writes:

The relationship between years of schooling and economic output at the national level is complex, to say the least.  A small but consistently positive relationship between long-term growth and years of schooling is found in econometric studies, but there are many caveats and exceptions that are relevant to designing higher education policy in the U.S.

For one thing there is tremendous variability in the relationship.  For example, Germany has a stronger economy than France but half the percentage of young adults with a college degree.

Further, France has increased its percentage of young adults with college degrees by 13 percentage points in the last 10 years whereas Germany’s output of college graduates has hardly budged, yet the economic growth rate of Germany has exceeded that of France over this same period.  Obviously increasing educational attainment is not a magic bullet for economic growth.

Maybe not for economic growth. But politicians know that saying "we're number one" or that we'll be number one again has a powerful appeal to the nationalistic pride of American voters.

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