University of Indiana at Bloomington
David Brooks is excited. Not about another long dinner sitting next to a horny Senator with roving hands. He is excited about a Democratic President spending money on local community colleges:

President Obama announced this week… a $12 billion plan to produce 5 million more community college grads by 2020.

Why does this interest Bobo? Government spending on anything but Republican defense contractors and banksters he usually considers enabling dependence. Relatively speaking, that’s not a lot of money. And students and faculty at such schools are not often beneficiaries of Republican largesse, although they form the backbone of American communities. He’s discovered that we have squandered our most important "asset":

Over the past 35 years, college completion rates have been flat. Income growth has stagnated. America has squandered its human capital advantage.

Those three sentences are non sequiters, distracting us from observing that squandering “human capital” is a fundamental part of the American business model. For starters, the phrase is business school jargon that dehumanizes people and de-emotionalizes decisions about them, casting them as commodities that can be discarded in favor of a marginally bigger bonus. Businesses are enabled in doing that by the gutting and non-enforcement of labor laws and rewarded for doing so by perverse government tax incentives and subsidies.

Mr. Brooks’ solution to this waste of resources is to improve local community college education, to make it more “accountable”, to tie money to reforms in digital networking and delivery of services, and “to spur a wave of innovation." For Bobo, the problem is not hard times or a government subsidized business model that harms labor. It is "accountability", a theme noticeably absent in his coverage of Republican presidential performance.

Selective accountability for others is an old neocon meme. Why ignore graduates of traditional undergraduate colleges and universities (other than that they are increasingly finding it harder to land jobs – because of the economy, not their training)?

I think there two background issues at play here: 1) the rising cost of traditional, public and private four-year undergraduate programs, and 2) tension over diversity and leadership as we confront fundamental changes to our national economy.

Cost is so obviously an issue that Bobo explicitly and condescendingly denies that it is:

I’ve had this discussion with my liberal friends a thousand times, and I have come to accept that they will never wrap their minds around the truth: lack of student aid is not the major reason students drop out of college. They drop out because they are academically unprepared or emotionally disengaged or because they lack self-discipline or because bad things are happening at home.

Affordability is way down the list. You can increase student aid a ton and you still won’t have a huge effect on college completion.

Every parent knows that cost is a fundamental issue in obtaining a higher education, at public as well as elite private schools. The latter, and the top ten public universities, are a de facto minor league for our national leadership team. Once "need blind" schools are under great pressure to admit those who can pay full cost. A modernized G.I. bill – a seminal factor in creating the post-World War Two middle class – barely squeaked through a Democratic Congress.

Costs and tuition have consistently risen at twice the rate of inflation for three decades. Republican state legislatures have systematically cut funding for state land grant universities, the backbone of the public higher education system. And college and university endowment values have plummeted, causing the sell off of assets, program cut backs, and desperate pleas to alumni and friends to "give what they can".

Social Leadership
David Brooks knows that the role of the university in society has been debated since Oxford was still a river ford for oxen. The oldest dispute is over whether their primary function is teaching or research. Benefits attributed to them include the utilitarian – graduates earn more money than non-graduates and research is often an engine running local and national economies. Non-economic reasons for universities include the cultivation of leadership, excellence and critical thinking. University graduates

make up the backbone of the country’s social structure. The legal, medical and teaching professions form the necessary core of our society….The philosophy of individuality, cosmopolitanism and social responsibility that is integral to higher education, is transmitted through the behaviour of graduates.

That quote from the UK’s BBC applies equally here. If spiraling costs restrict access to higher education, especially elite undergraduate and graduate programs, opportunity becomes restricted to the already wealthy and the few super talented students who outperform them. Two examples currently much in the news are Barack Obama and Sonia Sotomayor. Take them out of the mix or reduce their numbers and impact, and you revert to the John Robertses, Dan Quayles and George Bushes, and the nomenklatura identified by neocon think tanks as worthy of their institutional but indirect support.

Enhancing community college programs is very important. But it’s not the match that’s playing on center court.