From the standpoint of civil rights, the ideal is universal opportunity to realize full potential. That ideal is the honorable motivation of those adopting universal post-secondary credentialing as a goal. It is hardly clear that our economy is capable of offering everyone the opportunity to realize their full potential, but we at least want to get kids to the starting gate of adult working life with an education that maximizes their early potential.
From the standpoint of the economy, we want to preserve economic leadership for the United States. Or at least, we want to preserve broad middle-class prosperity, not to the exclusion of prosperity of other peoples. In most discussions, the vision of response to Asia and automation is that we will keep the best, most creative jobs, here in the United States, while sending the low-skill and/or routine work elsewhere. We will be the creative lead economy doing the research, development, design, marketing and sales, and global supply chain management. To maintain this lead as other nations improve their education systems and industrial capacity we will need to improve the skills of our own work force. (This resonates with the “21st century skills” reports — critical thinking, creativity, global awareness, etc.)
An example of this paradigm appears in Tough Choices or Tough Times, the report of the new Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. The report does no analysis of what share of the work force is engaged in industries where this paradigm could conceivably apply. The report does offer an alternative to the universal post-secondary credential idea. It advocates a sorting of students based on major secondary-school-level exam performance and tracking in to different educational routes — more vocational or more academic. The breakpoint would be in 10th grade, but could be earlier if kids wanted to place forward and kids would also be able to keep retaking the major exams. While the specifics may or may not be right, the report does at least grapple with the issue of goal-setting for educational attainment in a serious way. (The report also advocates a whole-sale restructuring of the education system including early education for all, merit-pay, privatization, choice, more state leadership and better adult education. The authors note that dramatic increases in spending nationwide over the past few decades have not led to large increases in test performance and suggest that the problem has been the lack of whole sale restructuring — all of the ideas tried have been good, the problem is that they have not all been tried together.)