American education faces a crisis. Making college free and helping students acquire short-term credentials might help. But in a rapidly changing workforce, where the premium on higher levels of education and adaptability skills is only increasing, these approaches won’t be nearly comprehensive enough to address the core problem. More Americans need the education and skills for the 21st-century economy.
For one, college enrollment is in decline. Just last semester, 60% of U.S. colleges failed to meet their enrollment goals. Juxtapose this against the fact that roughly 90% of the high-paying jobs in today and tomorrow’s economy require postsecondary degrees, according to Georgetown University labor economist Anthony Carnevale, while wages for those only requiring a high school diploma are stagnant or in decline.
The pipeline to college faces a problem. Elementary and secondary schools have serious problems with teacher recruitment and retention. States such as Illinois and Michigan have seen over a 50% decline in those who complete a teacher preparation program, according to the Education Commission of the States. Couple that with yearly rates of teachers leaving the profession exceeding 15% on average—and greater numbers in high-poverty schools—and the problem magnifies. That’s before even addressing the need for higher-quality teaching to enhance student achievement.
Higher-education institutions have a completion crisis, too. Since 2011, the total number of students in U.S. colleges and universities has fallen by 2.3 million, and those who remain are having a harder time completing. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, in 2019, only six in ten students completed a two- or four-year degree six years after high school; black student completion is half that. In community colleges, on-time completion rates for low-income students of color are in the single digits, with far too many taking non-credit-bearing remedial courses, which can cost the nation over $5 billion a year.
Increased public support is one answer to these problems, but any major new programs will compete for funding with health care and the environment. And spending alone absent innovation and a clear focus might disappoint. The good news is that potentially exciting data-driven solutions are available in the private sector. American businesses have good incentives to help: They are significantly impacted by troubled education performance. And, while the private sector is not fully to blame for income inequality, it can act to address it with a focus on improving education performance though meaningful public-private partnerships.
Here are three practical solutions businesses can act on now.
First, increase the pool of teachers by encouraging and supporting employees who seek an “encore career” through a transition into a teaching. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 1.6 million people over 55 in the tech sector alone. Survey data show many of them are interested in a second career. At IBM, a pilot program to both help employees transition out of the workforce and assist schools in finding top talent enabled 100 employees to become classroom teachers. For programs like this, the private sector and government can share the modest cost of teacher-education courses and time off for practice teaching. Extrapolating the IBM success across Fortune 500 companies, as many as 50,000 teachers a year, many with strong math and science backgrounds, could be recruited.
Second, in many school systems declining enrollment has left far too many buildings half-occupied and at risk of closure. Instead of bearing the cost of closing such schools, vacant space—which can be expensive to rent in cities like Chicago—can be used as “maker space.” Programs like this could offer significant benefits by locating private-sector innovators in schools in exchange for their agreement to mentor teachers and students and to provide job opportunities for parents. Similarly, not-for-profit organizations might also be located in vacant school space, providing guidance and support for students in exchange for free and reduced-cost space.
Third, at the higher-education level, public-private partnerships can step in to address enrollment decline. According to the Urban Institute and ProPublica, the majority of those over 50 are at risk of losing their jobs due to a lack of education and skills. Their research, based on a survey of 20,000 individuals, demonstrates that only one in ten of those workers who lose their jobs will go on to earn a wage anywhere close to what they had once earned. This population of nontraditionally employed workers could be attracted to higher education. With a cost-sharing arrangement between the public and private sectors, customized skills enhancement could be provided, much of it online, to hundreds of thousands of such nontraditional worker-students a year. For employers, this would eliminate both the cost of hiring and training replacement workers at higher wages and the added cost of laying off workers. And everyone would realize the benefit of enhanced tax revenue from more employees working longer and at higher wages.
Funding to make college more affordable should be on the agenda, too. Both Pell grants and federal work-study programs should be expanded, as should career and technical education and innovative programs like the grade 9 to 14 model called P-TECH. Creative solutions from businesses are not just necessary but essential. There will never be a better time to act.
Stanley Litow is a professor at Duke and Columbia Universities, and serves as innovator-in-residence at Duke. He is a trustee and chair of the Academic Affairs Committee at the State University of New York. He previously served as deputy chancellor of schools for New York and as president of the IBM Foundation.
- ‘No one to help me’: Special education families struggle with coronavirus school closures – USA TODAY
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- Navigating Education at Home – Spectrum News
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- Hernando schools await governor’s decision on technical education building – Tampa Bay Times
- Police plan education, measured enforcement of statewide stay-at-home order – Press Herald
- Secretary DeVos Announces New Federal Deadline Flexibility for Career and Technical Education Leaders, Allowing Them to Focus on Serving Students During the COVID-19 Outbreak – U.S. Department of Education