His South Korean counterpart, meanwhile, warns of a glut of university graduates and a work force hard-wired to outdated 20th-century manufacturing skills. "Reckless entrance into college is bringing huge losses to families and the country alike," said President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea recently.
Mr. Lee has raised eyebrows, and hackles, by suggesting that fewer people should go to college from a population of 50 million that sustains 3.8 million undergraduate and graduate students.
But with a demographic crisis looming, the government now admits that the expansion has gone too far. "We allowed too many universities to open," says Sung Geun Bae, director general of South Korea's education ministry. Mr. Sung points out that his country simultaneously has one of the world's highest university enrollment rates—and one of the world's lowest birthrates. "Fifteen years ago we needed all those universities, but times have changed."
What that means for the nation's 40 public universities and 400 private colleges is still being debated across the nation, but the writing is on the wall. Education Minister Lee Ju-Ho warns that student enrollment at Korean colleges will plummet by 40 percent in the next 12 years. By 2016 there will already be more university places than high-school graduates, and many institutions will be forced to shut their gates or merge in what is likely to be a very painful downsizing for a nation that reveres education.
In an effort to move the debate forward—and help families decrease education-related expenses—President Lee has proposed that parents lower their educational aspirations and consider vocational schools or other job-training opportunities rather than expensive four-year universities. The idea has been condemned by some, but Lee Seongho, a professor of education at Chung-Ang University says the president is correct—and that Mr. Obama shouldn't hold up South Korea as a model of education success.
"President Obama suffers from an illusion about South Korean education," he says.
Mr. Lee says that his students have unrealistic expectations about college and that an increasing number are out of work after graduation. "I say, 'Think seriously: Do you really want to waste a huge amount of money and four years of your life for nothing?'"
Commentators like Mr. Lee accept that the notion of downsizing a nation of such high educational achievers is politically fraught, but many say South Korea's higher-education system will emerge stronger. Ms. Yu of the Korean Educational Development Institute believes that competition will force universities to focus on quality and change how they teach. "I think we will start to think about whether it is necessary to have students in classrooms at all. There is a lot of innovation in digital and online colleges."
Well, there's a couple things the Korean colleges can do to maintain the numbers. First, they can try to enroll all those Chinese students from shut-down programs. Sure, there are language issues, but I bet they can figure it out.
This isn't going to be too different from the issues that will hit higher education the world over. "Luckily", in the U.S., many colleges have switched to part-time faculty, which are easy to cut when fewer students come in. Also, the U.S. tends to have a different attitude towards education and "career progression" than many other developed countries -- we don't think it that unusual for people to go for further education when they're older, or to switch career fields multiple times.
But it does seem the "college for all!" mantra is a worldwide cargo cult. At some point, when the planes carrying cargo don't arrive, people start to question whether the various cargo rituals had any value at all.