Amidst the flurry of programs and initiatives that President Obama announced last night, one particularly unwise one has escaped substantial notice: his call for “America [to] once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world” by 2020. The experience of Britain since 1999 with a very similar goal reveals the fallacies behind this arbitrary and top-down vision.

One minor fact evidently escaped Obama’s attention: according to the OECD, the U.S. already has the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. Where it does less well is the percentage of first-time degree seekers who graduate. There, indeed, the U.S. is well behind the world leaders.

But in any event, it is absolutely praiseworthy for Americans, at any age, to improve their education, whether they are motivated by a love of learning or a desire to improve their career prospects. And there is no reason why the President should not applaud their initiative, and lend the moral support of his office to all those possessed of it.

But it is one thing to applaud higher education while relying on individual Americans to decide whether or not they should go to college. It is quite another to set an arbitrary target for the percentage of Americans who should graduate from college. That is exactly the approach that Britain has pursued since 1999, when Tony Blair set “a target of 50 per cent of young adults going into higher education in the next century.” That target was a response to fears that Britain had fallen behind the U.S. in its emphasis on higher education: now, the U.S. is trying, at least in the President’s mind, to leapfrog back.

Except that the U.S. is still in the lead, while Britain never actually jumped. Higher education participation has risen in Britain from 39.2 per cent in 2000 to 39.8 per cent in 2007, and the goal has become a political embarrassment. One top civil servant recently described the target as “infamous,” acknowledged that it would not be reached, and admitted that “we never thought we would actually [achieve it].”

And, to the limited extent that British universities are producing more BAs, it’s not clear that anyone cares. The Director General of the Confederation of British Industries was blunt when he spoke on the subject in late 2007:

business people have very little interest at all in Government targets for raising the proportion of employees with a university qualification . . . . the number of students graduating from college or university has come at the expense of quality, in terms of knowledge, attitude, and employability.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency agreed: its ongoing study of 2002-03 graduates found that, four years later, only 74% were employed at all, and of those 80% were in graduate occupations. In other words, of 100 graduates, only 59 had found jobs that were appropriate for their educational qualifications.

That is in large part because, as the think tank Reform notes, “Lack of information and a top-down approach has resulted in a failure to signal to individuals where their talents would be best placed.” The result is that Britain leads the world in Media Studies degrees, but ranks poorly in engineering, science, law, and health. It is just not true that, in higher education, more BAs are better. They may be better, but individual students, not the government, are best equipped to know when that’s the case.

And then there’s the tuition problem. One justification for increased federal financial aid is that higher education has increased tuition relentlessly. But increasing financial aid in response is no cure: one 1991 study by Brookings found that four-year public colleges in the U.S. raised tuition $50 for every $100 in federal student aid. In other words, colleges capture a large portion of the value of financial aid by increasing their prices all round, including for the students who are not receiving federal support.

Obama’s praise for higher education is laudable. His desire to forcibly drive the U.S.’s college graduation rate higher is not. The British experience implies it will cost a lot, and that it will generate meager returns. Obama’s goal will either be quietly forgotten, or, more likely, he will in a few years take credit for the already existing reality: the U.S. has lots of college graduates today.