Rethinking Educational Access

Higher education can no longer focus only on young people and preparation for life, writes Arthur Levine. We need to expand our vision to include reskilling and upskilling Americans across their whole lifespan.

November 6, 2017
 
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Access to education for all Americans has been on the national agenda for 70 years, since President Harry S. Truman's 1947 Commission on Higher Education for Democracy. The commission identified five barriers to access: income, race, religion, geography and gender. Our focus has been on overcoming those barriers to ensure all of the nation's young people have an equal opportunity to attend quality schools and colleges and to prepare for the future.

That definition of access, while still essential, is now outdated and inadequate -- no longer serving the nation's needs. The United States is making a transition from a national, analog, industrial economy to a global, digital, information economy. The historic view of access is a product of the former, while largely ignoring the realities of the latter.

Today we need something very different. The United States is experiencing profound, accelerating and continuous change owing to the transition, and the lives of many Americans are being disrupted. Jobs are being eliminated, both those requiring relatively little education and increasingly those requiring a great deal of education but involving routine work -- even in fields such as journalism, medicine and law. Some of those jobs have migrated to other countries, but the overwhelming majority of them -- four out of five -- have been lost to automation.

The scale of automation-driven job loss will only increase. We can expect whole industries to vanish. For example, in 29 states, the most common job is truck driver. Driverless trucks can be expected to take most of those jobs and eliminate the much of the need for the restaurants and services that support drivers as well.

Even in industries not at risk, the skills and knowledge required to perform existing jobs are continually changing. The half-life of knowledge is getting shorter and shorter, demanding both updating and raising skills just for a worker to stay in place.

The point is this: our conception of access to education can no longer focus only on young people and preparation for life. We need to expand our vision to include reskilling and upskilling Americans across their lifespan.

The United States needs to establish a social safety net for those whose lives have been or are in imminent danger of being disrupted by change. Education must be at its center. The reason is that the national, analog, industrial economy has been dependent on natural resources and physical labor. In contrast, the global, digital, information economy is powered by knowledge and minds. Education is the dynamo that powers the emerging economy. An education-centered safety net will require convenient access to affordable and up-to-the-minute education tied to market needs.

It requires funding from government and industry. Industries that downsize should be required to fund the reskilling of their work force. Federal and state financial aid programs need to expand. The current federal Employment and Training Program must be broadened to anticipate employment disruptions rather than serving only those who have already lost their jobs.

That will require data -- well vetted, comprehensive, easily accessible, widely publicized and up-to-date. Planning for anticipatable job loss in industries such as trucking must be the responsibility of government -- federal and state -- determining which industries are at risk and the time frame for their decline, as well as which industries will be hiring and what skills and knowledge they will require. Postsecondary education will need to act on the data by creating programs -- degrees, certificates and stackable credentials rooted in the competencies jobs require in the growth areas, if they do not currently exist. That will also mean closing programs that primarily support dying industries.

We should do these things not just because it's the right thing to do, but because our economy and our democracy depend upon it. For states, it is far cheaper to retrain workers than to pay the costs to support unemployed, low-income residents. But more important, as Singapore demonstrates, having a labor force educated for today's economy is essential to attract and retain industry. Right now, there are open jobs in most states, even in those with higher unemployment rates, for technical positions requiring sub-baccalaureate educations.

More than this, disruptive unemployment victimizes and penalizes people, too often whole communities, who did nothing wrong. They merely worked in the wrong industries. They pay for job loss with their dreams. The consequence is anger, distrust, loss of hope and a sense of abandonment -- and people demanding government enact policies that will turn back the clock. It's a recipe for poisoning a democratic society.

The price of failing to act is just too high. The first step in taking action is to recognize the scale of the challenge we face and to enlarge our definition of educational access from preparation for life to lifelong education in an age of disruption.

Bio

Arthur Levine is the president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

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