“Today, college degree is what the high school education was fifty years ago, to get a decent job. Things have changed a lot and we need to address this through a tuition free education in all public colleges and universities” says Senator Bernie Sanders, our current presidential candidate in the Democratic Party.
Some time ago I was speaking with a librarian in a local public library. She said that “in my times going to college was for the nerds”. She was referring to a time about fifty years ago. So, are we suggesting that everyone born today has to be a “nerd”? If not, what is the change in college education that is suitable for the modern economy? Without addressing this fundamental change in what we teach and what the students learn in a college, simply making the same old education from fifty years ago only tuition free – how will that change anything?
Today all trade policies including NAFTA are being derided. But they were thought of as the solution to the problems and opportunities of Globalization, twenty years ago. Without truly understanding the forces and causes of globalization that solution implemented twenty years ago appears to be detrimental to the US workers today. We have a situation where the economy continues to grow with more low paying jobs and few good paying jobs. There is a risk in the future of a similar negative impact for the freshly minted graduates with free college education proposed today.
First and foremost, free college education has to be coupled with more well-paying jobs where these educated work force can be employed. “New Bachelor-Level Chemists Face Grim Job Market” is a quote from an article published by the American Chemical Society (ACS). The article is titled: A glut of chemists with bachelor’s degrees as well?
Over the past four decades there has been a relentless emphasis on Information Technology specifically and Digital Technology as a broad category. This reliance on IT as the major source of success has certainly paid rich dividends. It has helped this country to be at the forefront of economic success, while many other developed nations such as Japan continue to struggle. Despite the faster growth of China and other developing nations, US is still by far the largest nation in terms of its GDP. IT has an undeniable role in this success. But, the number of IT jobs to be created can never meet the full employment needs of this nation. We see this in the recent success of auto industry. Despite the claims of resurgence in auto industry, we see this success with only fewer good paying jobs.
Full employment does not automatically mean good wage jobs.
Today every one earns wages and their salaries through one of three pathways: Knowledge and its use, Information work and physical labor. Of these three physical labor work has been available in plenty until the evolution of machinery and mechanization. Now even the few labor jobs any one can do can be replaced by robots and automation. To make up for this people moved on to information work. Reading and writing skills and any ability to process data. Education acquired through high school and college education was useful here. Now for the past four decades anything a human do – read, write, speak, process data, analyze and decide – can be increasingly done using computers, IT systems and internet. This leaves a narrow pathway for employment – through “knowledge and its use”. This constant decline in good paying lower level jobs is recognized by many, but they are unwilling to face up to the reality openly and forthrightly.
Nerd may be someone with knowledge, but every nerd does not automatically become a knowledge worker with usable output of value to someone. This dichotomy needs to be recognized. Simply making higher college education tuition free is like throwing good money after bad money.
So, where will these new jobs come from? These jobs will definitely need better academic skills in terms or reading, writing and mathematics. Beyond that the STEM education of today has to become much more practice or applications oriented. But such applications or targets can not be obvious unless the nation sets out a clear industrial policy for the future. This does not imply that the government picks winners and losers. Instead a nation without a long term policy is like a rudderless ship.
How can we have a practice oriented education, when the teachers have no real life experience in the practice or application of what they teach? May be no one should be taken into the teaching profession unless they have had hands on know-how in their area of expertise? Perhaps the future president – who are candidates today – can promote two plus years of support for on the job learning, for any one who is to be accepted in the teaching profession at any level – high school, community college or university?
Finally, not all those who are rich or better off are the scrooges from Wall Street, as Mr. Sanders would like us to believe. Yes, there are many in that camp and the system is rigged in their favor. All the power to Bernie and his supporters to address that issue. But, there are many who are rich or at least better off in this global economy, who have the passion and skills to discover, develop and exploit new solutions. If you are not aware of them, simply watch a few episodes of Shark Tank. These are the few with what we call as Transformational Skills.
We see education today has to be a combination of knowledge, its use and a passssion to make it relevant or useful to some one with a need. We believe this aggregate education starts with a formal education on System Thinking and Transformational Skills.