Several recent reports underscore the 21st century challenges we face as a nation. First, disparities in educational attainment persist across racial and ethnic groups: Forty-two percent of whites ages 25 to 64 have an associate’s degree or higher compared with 26 percent of African Americans and 18 percent of Hispanics. Second, assuming no significant changes in degree attainment patterns, the United States will fall 16 million degrees short of the number needed to match leading nations in the percentage of adults with a college degree and to meet the workforce needs of 2025.
Third, high-skill jobs that require advanced learning (a postsecondary education credential) will make up almost half of all job growth in the United States in the next decade. Without increasing the labor supply in these economic sectors, businesses and corporations will look elsewhere to hire college-educated workers. Fourth, stagnation in educational attainment is not only a problem of access to colleges and universities; in fact, barely half of students (54 percent) who begin college complete a degree or certificate, which ranks the United States last among the development economy member nations of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.
This report gets filed under “saving capitalism from itself” along with the green jobs programs of the Apollo Group I wrote about earlier in the week. Education is a harder sell, I think, despite the long-standing political necessity of emphasizing it’s importance. It’s also important to define education carefully.
I lived in Austin, Texas, in the 1980s, just as the digital juggernaut was just beginning to build up steam. All of the technology firms claimed that they were coming to Austin becuase of the well educated workforce. They said, in effect, that they wanted to take advantage of all of those slackers with doctorates.
What was interesting was that at the same time these same companies were setting up programs at the community colleges to provide the sorts of technical training needed in high tech factories. In fact, they were not at all interested in those slackers; too many of them had liberal arts degrees.
They knew that they could get the workers they needed on the cheap. Unless we are careful, the green revolution may well turn out to be a similarly hollow promise. The ideals of the liberal arts education was that education was an end in itself as well as a means to a better job. It’s as important as ever.