Today's Students Stuck in Yesterday's Programs

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

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As we pass through another celebration of  Independence Day, Americans can marvel at the fact that – whether a war for independence, a civil war, world wars or depressions large and small – the history of the nation has been to turn adversity and despair into hope and promise. As we hopefully emerge from the latest economic duress begun a half dozen years ago, we can at least take some comfort from the signs of hope.

Housing starts, the stock market and some retail sales show signs of promise. However, the skills crisis the nation faces is a problem  that has yet to be addressed. The facts are that U.S. competitiveness largely rests on our ability to confront and address the mismatch that currently exists in the between the skills needed to fill 21st century jobs and the education currently being provided to our young people.

Before heading into a debate over the future directions we must take, there are some facts we need to review. First off, middle-skill jobs, those jobs that carry middle-class wages and the promise of middle-class lifestyles and the ability to climb the steps of the economic ladder, currently provide employment to 29 million Americans. Labor Department projections tell us that over the next 10 years these jobs are likely to increase by 50 percent, providing opportunity to about 15 million Americans. Increasing high school graduation rates in a majority of U.S. states, coupled with the availability of these jobs, ought to give us comfort.

But they don't. Currently the graduation rate for two-year community colleges, even at the end of six years, hovers at about 25 percent. For the vast majority of young people who drop out, their wages are likely to top off at about $15 per hour for life, with many earning less.

In the middle of the 20th century, education policy in the U.S. changed markedly, and those changes turned problems into economic opportunity for generations of Americans. High school, which had been optional in virtually all states, became mandatory, and high school completion rates skyrocketed. Concurrently, the GI Bill of Rights offered higher education to scores of returning veterans, and college completion skyrocketed as well.

We were at an inflection point, and millions of Americans found their skills directly connected to the skills required for solid careers offering economic hope and opportunity. But that hope depended on the two policy changes outlined. Without them, it is questionable that their future and the future of the U.S. would have been so bright.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

There are two changes, if embraced at this point, that could provide that kind of opportunity today. In the United States, what we used to refer to as vocational education, of late called career and technical education, was funded by federal, state and local education funds. The federal money, well over $1 billion last year provided to states and localities via the Perkins Act, provided a good deal of this support.

And yet it funded and supported education programs that look a lot like what the U.S. embraced more than 50 years ago. These funds provided equipment, instruction and related costs to connect education to careers, but the careers they connect to often no longer exist. The Perkins Act is up now for reauthorization and without spending new money, it could produce new value for millions of students.

First, the funds ought to require business involvement to link education to careers. Second, the funds ought to require connection to higher education coursework and curriculums so students can have the workplace skills and the educational preparation and credentials required. Finally, these funds ought to require connection to where the jobs are and are likely to be, as opposed to careers that no longer exist.

With these criteria and metrics that measure success and provide accountability for results, we could gradually see this investment produce returns in the form of well prepared young people able to take the jobs of tomorrow. This modest change in Perkins Act funding, which currently is distributed with no criteria and no metrics for performance, would be step one.