ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
President Obama wants more Americans to go to college. He's been urging people to pursue at least a year of education beyond high school. And yesterday, he unveiled a plan to help more students graduate from community colleges. Mr. Obama and others say that most of the jobs now being created require at least a two-year college education. Some experts, though, are challenging that notion, as NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: The president's visit to Macomb Community College in Warren, Michigan, was the perfect backdrop for his message. This community is reeling from auto industry job losses, and many are anxious to know what new jobs, if any, are on the horizon.
President BARACK OBAMA: We'll fund programs that connect students looking for jobs with businesses that are looking to hire.
SANCHEZ: Community colleges, Mr. Obama said, are an essential part of the nation's economic recovery.
Pres. OBAMA: We know that in the coming years, jobs requiring at least an associate degree are projected to grow twice as fast as jobs requiring no college experience. We will not fill those jobs, or even keep those jobs here in America, without the training offered by community colleges.
SANCHEZ: In the audience was Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation and a longtime advocate of what the president is proposing: college access for all.
Mr. JAMIE MERISOTIS (President, Lumina Foundation): What I like about the president's plan is that it recognizes that not everybody needs a bachelor's degree. Some people need an associate degree; some people simply need a certificate or a credential that will allow them to be successful in the workforce.
SANCHEZ: Merisotis says Mr. Obama is endorsing what many education experts believe: that jobs, now more than ever, will require at least a two-year college degree. Not true, though, says Richard Vedder, economics professor at Ohio University.
Professor RICHARD VEDDER (Economics, Ohio University): A huge percentage of our nation's human capital is created in on-the-job training, not through formal schooling in any case.
SANCHEZ: Vedder has spent the last 44 years teaching economics, and writing about the connection between higher education and the labor force. He says he's been wary of Mr. Obama's higher-education agenda ever since the president told a joint session of Congress that every American should pursue some form of education beyond high school.
Prof. VEDDER: When I heard that, I was somewhat shocked because I think it's an impossible dream.
SANCHEZ: Not everybody has the interest, the ability or the need to pursue a college degree, says Vedder. And more to the point, the government's own data shows that most of the new jobs Mr. Obama talks about may require some kind of training, but not a college education.
Prof. VEDDER: It doesn't take a huge amount of skills to be a bartender, for example. It doesn't take a lot of skills to work in fast food places and retail trade, and so on. These are not always high-paid jobs, but not everyone in America can have a job that pays above the average.
SANCHEZ: Vedder says according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only five of the 25 fastest-growing occupations over the next decade require any kind of college degree. The rest include jobs like office clerks, home care and health aides, janitors and maids - not exactly the nursing or green technology jobs Mr. Obama highlighted in his speech. Vedder says the president is cherry-picking his data. Still, Jamie Merisotis of the Lumina Foundation insists the president's plan is the right approach.
Mr. MERISOTIS: A dramatic increase in the number of Americans with college credentials is absolutely essential for our economic, social and cultural development as a country. It's an audacious goal, however.
SANCHEZ: It's the higher education equivalent of a moon shot, says Merisotis.
Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
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