The pundit class is raising questions about whether Scott Walker’s lack of a college degree disqualifies him from being America’s forty-fifth president. This is what educators call a “teachable moment” because the issue goes much deeper than Governor Walker’s biography. Of course a college credential shouldn’t be a prerequisite for the presidency, but that’s also true for many jobs that today require a degree even when it’s not really necessary. That’s a big problem.
Many American leaders are obsessed with college as the path to economic opportunity. President Obama, for instance, wants America to lead the world in college graduates by 2020. But he’s hardly alone. Philanthropists, scholars, business leaders, and other members of the meritocratic elite have been banging the “college for all”—or at least “college for almost all”—drum for the better part of a decade.
Yet despite their own blue-ribbon educations, these leaders are making a classic rookie blunder: They mistake correlation for causation. They point to study after study showing that Americans with college degrees do significantly better on a wide range of indicators: income, marriage, health, happiness, you name it. But they assume that it’s something about college itself that makes all the difference, some alchemy at their alma mater that turns gangly eighteen-year-olds into twentysomething masters of the universe.
Sure, college can be a great experience, and many individuals gain important knowledge, skills, insights, and contacts there. It’s also a prerequisite for most graduate and professional schools. All of that can help to build...