Today's Students Stuck in Yesterday's Programs

21st century students are caught in a 20th century system.

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Step two also requires a "Back to the Future" history lesson. In the 1960's, as part of efforts to help young college-age students afford their tuition costs, which then were a fraction of today's costs, the federal government passed the College Work Study Program, which survives to this day. Last year, it too involved over $1 billion in federal funding allowing students to earn, on average, $2,500 to offset tuition costs. These "jobs" largely take place today in college cafeterias and college libraries, providing little skills.

Were these jobs to be expanded to include those with actual career opportunity, in all sectors of the economy, with many of the experiences credit worthy and connected to academics and careers, this federal investment coupled with the Perkins Act change outlined above would take $2 billion in federal investment that currently misses the mark and focus it squarely on the problem.

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Why would this produce the needed results for our youth and address the issue of skills and competitiveness? Here is our last proof point. In his last State of the Union address, President Obama called out for praise the success of a new model for career education. In New York City, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a school called P TECH, a collaboration between IBM, the Department of Education and the City University of New York, began providing an six-year program for students where school, college and career were integrated, and the end of the road would be an Associates Degree and a promise to be first in line for jobs at IBM. The students who began this program are already achieving unprecedented results, with most 10th graders already achieving college readiness and nearly half obtaining more than 15 college credits.

Several schools in Chicago, under the leadership of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, adopted the model; at Sarah Goode, a P TECH modeled school in Chicago, attendance and achievement results are particularly strong. Interest in replicating this model is beginning to take hold, and one Governor, New York's Andrew Cuomo, has set forth a state-wide agenda to adopt this model with schools starting in each of the state's 10 economic development regions.

By cobbling together existing resources Cuomo, Bloomberg and Emanuel will see to it that thousands of students get the opportunity to have a clear pathway from school to career, with strong and challenging curriculum tied to workplace skills, internship and job opportunities and mentorships provided in an integrated fashion.

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This is a difficult time in the U.S., and it has been especially difficult to achieve legislative agreement on even those actions that would benefit the majority of Americans. But these are two changes that could unite forces on both sides of the argument. Business groups, labor, student organizations and education advocates of all stripes could embrace these changes. And it is not a budget buster, and does not threaten anything other than the status quo.

A review of the facts tells us that change is essential if we are going to address the skills crises and make the U.S. more competitive. Competition from India, China and elsewhere is real, and solutions born of the middle of the 20th century are hardly going to cut it when juxtaposed against 21st century facts. The time for change is upon us, and we can meet the challenge.  

Stan Litow is IBM's vice president of Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs and president of the IBM International Foundation.

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