In 2007, the United States fell behind eleven other nations in the percentage of adults, ages 25 to 34, with an associate degree or higher. The top four were Canada (55.8 per cent), South Korea (55.5 per cent), Russia (55.5 per cent) and Japan (53.7 per cent). America (40.4 per cent) slightly trailed Australia (40.7 per cent). The data greatly exercised many politicians, starting with President Obama. Their argument is venerable: the country needs more people with college diplomas because our economic future depends upon highly skilled executives and workers, able to compete in a global economy. In short: more diplomas, more cash. Higher education apparently has no higher goal.

Why have we failed to produce more college graduates with all those “necessary” skills? On the surface, it seems to be the fault of high school teachers. This year, nationally, only 24 per cent of the high school students who took the ACT college entrance exam had the skills to pass first year college courses. Composite scores have fallen since 2007. Many high schools now offer a core curriculum designed to prepare those going on to college by requiring four years of English and three years each of math, science and social studies. Among those who took these special courses, however, only 29 per cent proved ready for college work.

Why not just spend more money on education? That’s the emphasis of the Obama Administration. Well, how much is “more”? And where is the evidence that greater funding enhances test scores? Much of what Washington is now doing involves ties between Democrats and teachers’ unions. It’s a financial well that is never full. Just a few more billion dollars, the educators and politicos declare, and…and what?

It should be apparent that much of the problem facing high school teachers is social, economic, and moral. What can a teacher or a school do, for example, about students from broken homes, living in poverty, and swallowed up by the anti-intellectualism displayed in the media and by their peers? How can you raise the achievement levels of people who may well lack the basic intelligence to succeed in class? What can be done with those who would rather work off campus than study?

Increase teacher pay? Build larger, technologically sophisticated schools? Offer smaller classes? Inflate grades and lower academic standards to build student self-esteem? Harass or fire teachers who are not popular or whose students are not passing tests? Set state and national achievement goals? It has all been tried, and the results are abysmal.

Stephanie Banchero of the Wall Street Journal wrote recently, “there is still no solid evidence on how best to boost achievement.” I would omit the word “best”.

College professors are also under fire. A great many universities, colleges, and junior colleges in this country will admit students of any sort to bring in more money and boost the body count; in the American tradition, bigger is better. When large numbers of marginal students drop out or flunk out, the campuses are criticized for failing to meet the needs of young people and endangering the nation’s future. Predictably, campus administrators assure state and federal government officials and private donors that if they only had better financial support more degrees could be awarded and all those “highly skilled” jobs of the future could be filled.

The University of Wisconsin System is a case in point. The system is huge, encompassing 13 four-year institutions, 13 community colleges, and a statewide extension network. Together they enroll more than 178,000 students and receive $1.1 billion annually from state taxpayers. Its leaders are requesting a budget increase this year of $86.3 million from the cash-strapped legislature. (The state faces a $2.5 billion budget deficit in the next two years, despite recent hikes in taxes and fees amounting to $5 billion.) To attract support, UWS floated a proposal in April to boost the number of degrees by 30 per cent over the next 15 years. The cost of the venture for the first two years is $22.6 million. In short, they are saying, Give us more money and there will be more diplomas.

System officials are vague about how they arrived at the $22.6 million figure and what exactly will be done to create a skilled labor force. We are told that the funds would pay for supporting more than 5,900 additional undergraduates, including more than 2,200 who would have normally dropped out after their freshman year. The proposal includes $10 million for grants designed to assist students from families earning less than $60,000 a year.

So, in some mysterious way, UWS top brass will admit more of the poor (many of its campuses already have largely open admission policies), retain dropouts, and see that almost everyone graduates. It sounds like a deal no one could refuse. Until you think about it.

One wonders how current academic standards will fare by admitting more people who are not currently attracted by higher education. An even larger mystery is how the campuses will make sure that such people get a diploma. Won’t a larger number of silly courses and majors (e.g. turf management, film studies, mass communications, sports psychology) have to be created and expanded? And if that step is taken, how will it meet the future need for a skilled workforce?

Proponents of awarding a larger number of diplomas have nothing more sophisticated in their arsenal than the well-documented connection between college degrees and prosperity. They don’t address the hard question about what majors are making the most money. (Will the new people study engineering or medicine?) They don’t discuss the ability, motivation, and socio-economic realities of those who are to be recruited and retained. Nor do they want to talk about academic quality and grade inflation. Only about a third of the nation’s faculty positions are tenure-track, meaning that underpaid graduate students and ad hoc professors, desperate to be popular and employed full-time, handle much of the teaching on many campuses. How eager will they be to flunk anyone in an environment that emphasizes a higher graduation rate?

In Wisconsin, the case for more degrees is especially weak, for the problem here is not that we are graduating too few but that too many graduates leave the Badger State to go elsewhere. From 1989 through 2006, according to education policy analyst Thomas G. Mortenson, some 506,000 bachelor’s degrees were awarded in Wisconsin. But from 1989 through 2007 the state suffered a net-migration of 128,492 people with bachelor’s degrees. Mortenson reports that only six states suffered the loss of more graduates than Wisconsin.

Today, 25 per cent of state residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher. That’s about two percentage points lower than the national average. Ah, but for only $22.6 million, the University of Wisconsin System will begin a project to grant more diplomas. How exactly? And if that is achieved, how will anyone keep the graduates in the state? And if they stay, how will we know that they are “highly skilled” and ready to boost the economy?

It’s all so glib and cynical. Taxpayers deserve better from people with diplomas.

Thomas C. Reeves writes from Wisconsin. Among his dozen books are Twentieth Century America: A Brief History, and biographies of John F. Kennedy, Joseph R. McCarthy, Fulton Sheen, Walter J. Kohler, Jr and Chester A. Arthur.

Thomas C. Reeves writes from Wisconsin. Among his dozen books are Twentieth Century America: A Brief History, and biographies of John F. Kennedy, Joseph R. McCarthy, Fulton Sheen, Walter...