Obama once again calls education the key to economic recovery

President Barack Obama has repeatedly called for more Americans to get college degrees, and on several occasions — including during a speech in Texas today — he’s pushed a more college-educated workforce as the key to economic recovery.

His speech at the University of Texas in Austin touted education “as an economic issue,”  but the president didn’t offer any new specifics of how the U.S.  will increase college-completion rates. His speech comes as the College Board and others have expressed concerns about the gap between the U.S. and other countries in degree attainment.

President Barack Obama delivers remarks on higher education and the economy at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas August 9, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

“If we’re serious about making sure that America’s workers and America itself succeeds in the 21st century, the single most important step we can take is to make sure that every one of our young people – here in Austin, here in Texas, here in the United States of America – has the best education that the world has to offer,” Obama said.

Obama pledged to lift graduation rates, prepare graduates to succeed and make college affordable.  “That’s how we’ll reach our goal of once again leading the world in college graduation rates by the end of this decade,” the president said.

Many questions remain about how the U.S.  can accomplish those goals. Obama has noted repeatedly that only 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 now have college degrees, and he wants the number to be closer to 60 percent in a decade. Just a year ago, Obama pledged a new federal investment in community colleges as an answer to the country’s economic woes.

Community colleges, however, have been beset by their own woes. More jobless workers are turning to them for retraining, but so are students who can’t afford tuition at four-year schools. As a result, community colleges are oversubscribed, leaving students to turn to for-profit schools in many cases.  But for-profit schools are enduring their own set of challenges as they face increasing scrutiny and regulation.

So just how will higher education — already out of reach for many in the recession — help rescue the troubled U.S. economy? Bill Gates last week predicted that self-motivated learners will soon be learning online for free, while others have questioned whether everybody really needs a college degree.

It’s an argument that the author Charles Murray has made several times in the past. Obama doesn’t buy it, though.

“From Beijing to Bangalore, from Seoul to Sao Paolo, new industries and innovations are flourishing,” Obama said in his speech. “Our competition is growing fiercer. And while our ultimate success has and always will depend on the incredible industriousness of the American worker and the ingenuity of American businesses and the power of our free market system, we also know that as a nation, we’ve got to pull together and do some fundamental shifts in how we’ve been operating to make sure America remains number one … we can retake the lead.”