We have a problem. No, two. Actually…three. At least.
Problem #1: America needs post-secondary degrees. According to policymakers, America’s future depends on our ability to increase the percent of Americans with quality post-secondary credentials from the current 39% to 60% in the next decade. Unless we do so, our ability to compete in a global knowledge economy could be severely compromised as early as 2020. Statistics support this claim. America is the only OECD member country where young adults are less educated than the previous generation. By some reports, we need 63.1M degrees by 2025 to match the percent of citizens with post-secondary credentials in South Korea.
Problem #2: Higher education needs funding. Ironically, historic cuts in state higher ed funding threaten quality and, in some cases, survival of public colleges and universities: 50% of funding cut in Pennsylvania, $500 million in California, $400 million in Minnesota, the list goes on. This month, students across America took to the streets to protest higher ed budget cuts. Without state funds, students fear access to education will be limited to the economically-advantaged. Without students, universities fear mass layoffs and an immeasurable loss of talent as professors abandon the classroom. And without graduates, corporations wonder where they will find skilled workers. History and statistics support these claims.
If corporations need educated workers to order to remain competitive in the near future, and if policymakers want more educated workers in order for America to hold (or regain) our global rank as a highly-educated economic force, then cuts to education must be stopped, right? Well, maybe; particularly at proposed reduction levels. But, maybe there is a third consideration…
Problem #3: There does not appear to be a central conversation about higher education across all parties; an objective, future-looking dialogue that starts with where we are, and moves toward where we need to be. How else can rational decisions be made about where to cut and where to reinvent so we can still achieve the long-term vision for America? Passionate, brilliant, forward-thinking pundits exist in each camp. Imagine if these renaissance thinkers came together to celebrate higher education’s remarkable past while designing and championing the future.
Before we take draconian measures to “save” money at a potentially lethal cost, let’s ask our best thinkers to collectively create an outline for an effective 21st century educational system. One that is affordable to students and taxpayers. One that trains students for real jobs, while also teaching foundations of critical thinking, writing and consumer math. What is missing from our current system? Programs? Access? Affordability? Something else? What elements of the system are essential, which need reinvention and which must follow the path of the buggy whip and move on? Voices must include legislators on both sides, higher ed communities (students, professors, administrators), policy makers, corporations and relevant others such as philanthropic groups and student loan experts. It is time to come together.