Last week, President Obama proposed that the country should start providing two years of free education at community colleges for America’s students. This is a good idea, but like other good ideas from this president, it doesn’t go far enough. At very least, the nation ought to provide four years of post-high school education to every citizen or permanent legal resident. Our 19th century educational system needs to be brought into the 21st century, and the simple truth is we need to spend more time learning in order to be productive and useful members of society. Making students pay for it out of their own pockets suggests that education is a private good when in fact having an educated population is a huge benefit to everyone a public good.
The Christian Science Monitor, a paper that proves you can be religious and intelligent at the same time, explained how it would work. Students would need to go to school at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 grade point average and make progress toward a degree. States would have to provide about a quarter of the costs of the program, maintain existing education spending and work to reduce the need for remedial classes and repeated courses. Colleges with participating students would have to offer academic programs that fully transfer to four-year colleges or job training programs with high graduation rates that lead to degrees and certificates sought by employers.
The cost of the program to the taxpayers would be about $60 billion over 10 years, roughly $6 billion annually, about half of the price of a new Gerald Ford-Class aircraft carrier. Roughly 9 million people could participate.
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Now, I don’t know about you, but I believe that education is one of the foundations of civilization (a word we don’t take seriously enough). I further believe that in a democratic society being educated to the limits of your intellectual capacity is both a right and a duty. Not everyone is Ph.D material, but there is no excuse for going through life ignorant.
Universal education is a very new concept in human history. Until quite recently, most people have been illiterate and innumerate. However, the massive explosion of economic and technological growth in the last 200 years also seems tied to the expansion of education beyond the privileged few. Once the government got into the education business and everyone had to attend through a certain age, literacy and numeracy rose, as did the economy.
For instance, there was a time in the state of California, before Ronald Reagan became governor, when you could attend kindergarten, primary and secondary school, earn a BA, MA and Ph.D all at the taxpayer’s expense. California’s economy during that period underwent explosive growth. I believe there was a causal relationship.
Most of us know nothing of the inner workings of our computers, but we benefit from having a class of electrical engineers in our midst. Few of us could perform surgery, but we all benefit from having a group who can. Not everyone is capable of being a lawyer, but our justice system is a little fairer because each defendant doesn’t have to know the law himself.
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Two years of free community college will improve things. We do a lousy job in this country of training young people in jobs that exist that aren’t among the professions. However, the idea isn’t radical enough. A four-year degree improves your income potential for life (which means you’ll pay more into the government’s treasury, too).
What about those people whose minds and personalities are not suited to book learning and essay writing? What about the kid who can take apart his car and put it back together blindfolded? We need to expand the idea of education to include a lot of the stuff we devalued a few decades ago. Not long ago, I had to explain to my kids what shop class was (short for work shop, machine shop, wood shop, not shopping and it was a class I struggled in). They couldn’t believe that you used to be able to build stuff in school.
Four years after high school to learn a trade, to really learn it, has to be part of our reform. Reading Walt Whitman is a valuable thing for anyone, I believe. But so it knowing how to caulk a bathtub, wire a house or make a decent marsala sauce. Twenty years ago, there were no jobs in social media because social media didn’t exist. Now, we need more people than we have in the field, and the training available is patchwork at best.
We have to embrace the idea that K-12 is no longer enough, and that K-16 is where we need to start. Then, we need to broaden education’s definition to encompass more than just university-style learning. Yes, it will cost money, a lot of it. Most investments in the future do. But as economics teaches, if you subsidize something, people will consume more of it. Isn’t that what we want when it comes to education?
Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.