I’m writing this on the day the President announced a plan to forgive $10,000 in Federal student debt for anyone earning less than $125,000 a year. My point in this article is not to debate this politically volatile proposal but rather to observe that it is symptomatic of our dysfunctional system of post-secondary education. This concerns all of us, no matter our party.
The United States has invested in public education in one form or another since before we were a country. The first public school was established in Boston, Massachusetts in 1635. Building on that precedent, Horace Mann, secretary of education for Massachusetts established publicly funded education throughout Massachusetts. The practice spread throughout the country during the 19th century, but the first real step toward equity in public education was the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, which helped fund equal educational opportunity for all students.
There was a day when most jobs required little more than a high school diploma and this investment in public education provided the literacy and math skills as well as hands on skills that prepared graduates for most jobs and the growth of the U.S. from an agrarian to industrial society.
The G.I. Bill after World War Two led to an explosion in post-secondary education, with many veterans, who otherwise may have not had the chance. This, in turn led to a technological explosion in many fields and propelled the U.S. into space, helped create the computer revolution, advances in health care and life expectancy, and a variety of other societal advances.
The point is that investment in education is investment in the public, and not simply the private good. My basic contention is that we need to face the reality that a post-secondary degree or license in one of the various trades is the equivalent of a high school degree a century or even fifty years ago. And if you care about national greatness, this is a vital place to invest that will repay many times over the investment.
A few thoughts that likely will reveal my lack of expertise in public policy but that I think we all need to wrestle with:
- Post-secondary is not just college. There is a huge need in the skilled trades which are requiring even more skills as we develop smart homes, buildings and vehicles. For many, training in these fields is a far better option than college and crucially needed. No call center in another country will help you solve a plumbing or HVAC problem. The push to get everyone to go to college is misguided. And we need to recognize the intelligence that supposedly “blue collar” jobs involve.
- College costs do need to be addressed. Many of the increases in cost have come outside the classroom in terms of residence and recreation facilities. Some of these improvements are necessary, particularly in developing sustainable campuses, but few taxpayers want to invest in the costs of college not directly linked to education.
- There needs to be equity in education investment, providing those with the least in resources the same opportunities for education. The celebrity admissions scandals reveal we are far away from equity.
- Stringently regulate for-profit schools, who have accounted for significant student debt and typically have much lower graduation rates.
- Investment in education should be coupled with some form of state residency and/or national service. Since public education depends on a combination of state and national funding, this makes sense. It may come in the form of an agreement to work in the trade or field one has prepared in for a period of years, where one may pay forward that investment in the services they provide and the taxes they pay.
I’ll stop here. If we truly are committed to national greatness and equal opportunity, it is time to figure out how to extend our model of public funding to post-secondary education.