Yet later in that very same speech, Obama painted a different picture when he came to speak of the American student. "America," he told us, "has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree." But Obama shared this bad news with us for a reason. Not surprisingly, it turns out that he wants us to rally around his proposal to produce more college graduates.
At first it may sound hard to imagine resisting Obama on this point. After all, who isn't for improving education? But before we rush to enact these well-meaning plans, I suggest that we stop and think about two things. First we need to grasp both the enormity and the nature of the problem, and second, we need to take care not to assume that a college education always equals a better education.
First, the problem. The issue is not just that we need to hand out more college diplomas. What we need to do is produce an adult population that is more educated and more employable, and the troubling fact is that many students in college today come away from the experience without having learned much of anything.
In their new book "Academically Adrift," researchers Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa have provided us with a sobering picture of higher education in America today. According to their findings, after two years of college, 45 percent of students fail to show any improvement in "critical thinking, complex reasoning" or "written analysis."
All is not gloom and doom. Arum and Roksa then go on to note that the number of students showing no improvement drops to only 36 percent when the study was repeated with seniors.
I would suggest that we accept these numbers but then fashion a different lesson from them. The message we take away should not be that colleges are failing half of the students who are there.
The deeper truth is that many of these failing students simply should not be in college in the first place.
Why? Because they've been waived through high school. And now colleges -- which really should turn these students away -- are eagerly accepting them in order to bank their tuition dollars. Indeed, given the reality of the current recession, student enrollments at many American public institutions are now being capped not by entrance requirements but rather by fire marshals.
Moreover, the underlying problem is not one to be fixed by improving college prep classes. Sure, that would improve the graduation rate, but then what? We'd still be looking at a large number of students who aren't benefiting from the kind of education college offers.
Why? Because college isn't for everybody, and college doesn't offer the training necessary to do everything. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 17 million college graduates have jobs that don't require a college education. (There are more than 100,000 janitors with at least a bachelor's degree.)
At some point, students have to decide to do something, and the ethical thing to do here would be to make them cross this bridge before we saddle them with an insane amount of college tuition debt.
The point I am driving at is that real solutions will only materialize after we acknowledge that a large chunk of that 45 percent not learning at college should not be there.
But for that to happen, we need to change our approach to the problem.
Obama should have talked less in generalities and more in specifics. He should have told us that our high schools need to offer more vocational training and that these sorts of programs need to continue in community colleges.
If he can get a standing ovation for telling children at home that they need to help Uncle Sam and become a teacher, he could have mentioned a few other jobs that are just as rewarding. We need mechanics, and electricians, plumbers and builders too.
Matthew Biberman is a professor of English at the University of Louisville, where he teaches British literature from Shakespeare to the Romantics. He is the author of "Masculinity, Anti-Semitism, and Early Modern English Literature" and "Big Sid's Vincati." Read his blog on Red Room.