Education and Presidential Contenders

As the next wave of talking heads seeks the highest office in the nation, they will put forward many undoubtedly interesting and competing visions for how to reduce the debt burden on America’s students, and give more young people a chance to enter university.  None of these ideas will be particularly significant unless they account for the changing face of the American college student--and the evolving role of higher education.

Between lining up for photos and rattling off obligatory mentions of the various issues they predict will figure in the biggest contest of 2016, the topic of education has made at least a minor appearance each time a new candidate has stepped forward.  (As of publication, the candidate list includes Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Hillary Clinton).

Considering the early diversity of candidates, there has been some impressive consistency in how they all address the subject.  Generally, they either bemoan the lack of choice available to K-12 students, dooming them to continued poverty, underachievement, and denied access to The American Dream; or else they criticize the outrageous costs associated with university education. In Clinton’s case, she simply features “everday Americans” making mention of the need to pay for college or relocate to access better schools, without making any comment or commitment on the issues.

These are desperately real, relevant issues, but in addressing them the candidates subscribe to what has become an outdated notion: that children and the young have a unique need (and right) to quality education.

Left out of the preliminary pandering is any mention of the rising share of enrollment taken up by “non-traditional” students; that is, adults, either making up for a foregone primary education, or making a mid-career transition by returning to the university.

Already, this cohort makes up roughly 38% of college enrollment nationwide.  That number is only going to grow, as employers increasingly see an undergraduate degree as the minimum entry requirement for consideration, much less advancement within a company.

Even more than this long-developing trend, though, is the rapid pace of transformation blowing through industries, making skills depreciate faster, experience lose its applicability, and workers find themselves in need of a targeted talent-and-knowledge upgrade.

Since the personal computer first arrived on the market, the public has been trained to accept that high technology quickly melts away into obsolescence, by design or by nature.  The deep integration of such technology (and the know-how needed to effectively work with it) into the economy means that people can become outdated and expendable just as quickly as their smart-gadgets.

Their best defense? Continuing education.

The cost and availability of college is a serious consideration for the employed as much as it is for the aspiring worker.  Somehow, modern rhetoric has yet to catch up with this reality and recognize that adult education needs as much attention as early childhood education, and everything in between.  Richard Novak, VP of Continuing Education and Adult Learning at Rutgers, makes a compelling case for how accommodating adult learners improves everything from the bottom line to holistic student outcomes.

Fortunately, as Novak notes, technology (and some influential early-adopters) has made some important inroads toward rebuilding, the delivery of such high-demand academics.  Yet the internet, for all its success in disrupting and recasting supply chains, retail, and entertainment, has not fully shaken-up the higher education industry.

Certainly, institutions have gotten on board with virtual classrooms and online degree programs, but without making any kind of price-adjustment to complete the shift toward improved accessibility.  Cutting out the time requirements and expenses of relocating to attend university doesn’t really offset enough of the cost to make it a viable choice for many — especially those who most need the opportunity.

An education is certainly an investment, but to pay dividends it needs to recur beyond the initial transaction.

The economic reality is that the time for such a solution has already come and gone.  Today, education (and training) doesn’t stop with the acquisition of a degree.  Even doctors are being taken back to school by the demands of an entirely new system of creating and sharing medical records.  Slashing prices on two-year degrees and undergraduate programs — a difficult enough prospect for any presidential hopeful — will simply not yield lasting results any more.

Marco Rubio touched on the problem when he called for high schools to produce graduates ready to go into higher skilled jobs.  Expecting people to obtain a college degree before they can begin a career essentially dooms them to assume massive loads of debt before they have the means to even begin paying it off.  Curriculum reform at the K-12 level, clearly, is needed.

The federal government also needs to change its relationship with higher education, which is contributing directly to escalating costs, because federal aid is pegged to tuition.  Even worse, it supports archaic instructional delivery (to say nothing of tenure and other wasteful-but-traditional spending) at the expense of potentially ground-breaking transformations.

The heralds of technology have long cited distance learning and other hybrid or all-online programs as the future of education.  Smart policy would put more pressure on these programs to prove what works, and then throw its full support behind them.  Feeble cost-control efforts do little more than endorse a system with no accountability to prove its own value.

The spiking demand for degrees reflects not only more young students going to college, but more adults going back.  The current degree market means students at any age are buying credentials, occasionally with a brand-name institution behind it, without necessarily improving their skills, knowledge, or ability to add value to the economy.

The modern degree has a half-life, often of only a few years.  Dropping thousands of dollars on such a 19th-century makes little sense in a world and an economy accelerating through the 21stPresident Obama suggested that two years of community college ought to be as readily available to all as primary education.  This amounts to little more than picking up the bill without considering whether the product is worth buying.

The next round of presidential candidates needs to look at the whole system, not just K-12 and college, but American education, as whole, because lifelong learning is no longer a retirement pastime or hobby for the wealthy: it is an economic necessity.  Americans, and their schools, need a leader to engage closely with legacy institutions to bring them into the modern age.

As the next wave of talking heads seeks the highest office in the nation, they will put forward many undoubtedly interesting and competing visions for how to reduce the debt burden on America’s students, and give more young people a chance to enter university.  None of these ideas will be particularly significant unless they account for the changing face of the American college student--and the evolving role of higher education.

Between lining up for photos and rattling off obligatory mentions of the various issues they predict will figure in the biggest contest of 2016, the topic of education has made at least a minor appearance each time a new candidate has stepped forward.  (As of publication, the candidate list includes Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Hillary Clinton).

Considering the early diversity of candidates, there has been some impressive consistency in how they all address the subject.  Generally, they either bemoan the lack of choice available to K-12 students, dooming them to continued poverty, underachievement, and denied access to The American Dream; or else they criticize the outrageous costs associated with university education. In Clinton’s case, she simply features “everday Americans” making mention of the need to pay for college or relocate to access better schools, without making any comment or commitment on the issues.

These are desperately real, relevant issues, but in addressing them the candidates subscribe to what has become an outdated notion: that children and the young have a unique need (and right) to quality education.

Left out of the preliminary pandering is any mention of the rising share of enrollment taken up by “non-traditional” students; that is, adults, either making up for a foregone primary education, or making a mid-career transition by returning to the university.

Already, this cohort makes up roughly 38% of college enrollment nationwide.  That number is only going to grow, as employers increasingly see an undergraduate degree as the minimum entry requirement for consideration, much less advancement within a company.

Even more than this long-developing trend, though, is the rapid pace of transformation blowing through industries, making skills depreciate faster, experience lose its applicability, and workers find themselves in need of a targeted talent-and-knowledge upgrade.

Since the personal computer first arrived on the market, the public has been trained to accept that high technology quickly melts away into obsolescence, by design or by nature.  The deep integration of such technology (and the know-how needed to effectively work with it) into the economy means that people can become outdated and expendable just as quickly as their smart-gadgets.

Their best defense? Continuing education.

The cost and availability of college is a serious consideration for the employed as much as it is for the aspiring worker.  Somehow, modern rhetoric has yet to catch up with this reality and recognize that adult education needs as much attention as early childhood education, and everything in between.  Richard Novak, VP of Continuing Education and Adult Learning at Rutgers, makes a compelling case for how accommodating adult learners improves everything from the bottom line to holistic student outcomes.

Fortunately, as Novak notes, technology (and some influential early-adopters) has made some important inroads toward rebuilding, the delivery of such high-demand academics.  Yet the internet, for all its success in disrupting and recasting supply chains, retail, and entertainment, has not fully shaken-up the higher education industry.

Certainly, institutions have gotten on board with virtual classrooms and online degree programs, but without making any kind of price-adjustment to complete the shift toward improved accessibility.  Cutting out the time requirements and expenses of relocating to attend university doesn’t really offset enough of the cost to make it a viable choice for many — especially those who most need the opportunity.

An education is certainly an investment, but to pay dividends it needs to recur beyond the initial transaction.

The economic reality is that the time for such a solution has already come and gone.  Today, education (and training) doesn’t stop with the acquisition of a degree.  Even doctors are being taken back to school by the demands of an entirely new system of creating and sharing medical records.  Slashing prices on two-year degrees and undergraduate programs — a difficult enough prospect for any presidential hopeful — will simply not yield lasting results any more.

Marco Rubio touched on the problem when he called for high schools to produce graduates ready to go into higher skilled jobs.  Expecting people to obtain a college degree before they can begin a career essentially dooms them to assume massive loads of debt before they have the means to even begin paying it off.  Curriculum reform at the K-12 level, clearly, is needed.

The federal government also needs to change its relationship with higher education, which is contributing directly to escalating costs, because federal aid is pegged to tuition.  Even worse, it supports archaic instructional delivery (to say nothing of tenure and other wasteful-but-traditional spending) at the expense of potentially ground-breaking transformations.

The heralds of technology have long cited distance learning and other hybrid or all-online programs as the future of education.  Smart policy would put more pressure on these programs to prove what works, and then throw its full support behind them.  Feeble cost-control efforts do little more than endorse a system with no accountability to prove its own value.

The spiking demand for degrees reflects not only more young students going to college, but more adults going back.  The current degree market means students at any age are buying credentials, occasionally with a brand-name institution behind it, without necessarily improving their skills, knowledge, or ability to add value to the economy.

The modern degree has a half-life, often of only a few years.  Dropping thousands of dollars on such a 19th-century makes little sense in a world and an economy accelerating through the 21stPresident Obama suggested that two years of community college ought to be as readily available to all as primary education.  This amounts to little more than picking up the bill without considering whether the product is worth buying.

The next round of presidential candidates needs to look at the whole system, not just K-12 and college, but American education, as whole, because lifelong learning is no longer a retirement pastime or hobby for the wealthy: it is an economic necessity.  Americans, and their schools, need a leader to engage closely with legacy institutions to bring them into the modern age.