Education is Solution to Nation’s Most Serious Threat

(My letter to Rhode Island's congressional delegation)

Dear Senators Reed and Whitehouse, and Congressmen Langevin and Cicilline:

Along with 400 others, I had the pleasure of hearing you speak on a variety of national issues at the annual Congressional Breakfast, sponsored yesterday morning [May 8, 2017] by the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. Rhode Island is indeed fortunate to have four such committed and accessible individuals representing our state’s interests so ably in Washington.

Had there been opportunity for some Q & A, I would have raised my hand with a comment and question. People may disagree about the most serious threat facing our nation today — North Korea? Isis? climate change? cybersecurity? — but I would argue that our country’s most serious threat is damage to our nation’s long-term economic security.

And the solution to that threat can be reduced to a single word: education.

Consider:

  • A recent study from Georgetown University found that, of 11.6 million jobs created since the Great Recession, 11.5 million required some level of post-secondary education, and fully 8.4 million (73 percent) required a college degree.
  • At present, only about 45 percent of adult Americans have post-secondary education that includes a degree or high quality certificate — well short of what the job market currently demands.
  • Colleges and universities do an excellent job of educating relatively affluent Americans who had the good fortune to attend high quality K-12 schools — 77 percent of the children of Americans in the top quarter of family income can expect to earn a four-year degree.
  • The same is decidedly NOT the case for children from families in the bottom quarter of family income, among which only 9 percent earn a four-year degree.
  • This 8-to-1 ratio of success, as between the top quarter and the bottom quarter, has not changed in 40 years! More of what we have been doing will not produce anywhere near enough individuals with the level of education needed by today’s employers.
  • Historically, calls for greater levels of educational attainment have repeatedly been greeted with slow response times:
    • It took almost a century for all of the states to adopt free and mandatory public elementary and secondary education.
    • In 1893, a presidential commission in recommended that all adult Americans should have eight years of elementary education, and four years of secondary education. By 1940, only 50 percent of Americans had accomplished that goal.
  • There was one exception to this kind of protracted response: When the GI Bill was passed in 1943, and was followed by the Truman Commission report of 1946/1947, creating a dramatically increased expectation of, and possibility for, the attainment of a college degree, the percentage of Americans with a four-year degree quadrupled in just 25 years—and that period coincided with one of the most robust periods of economic growth in our nation’s history.

My point is that unless the federal government catalyzes the process of creating more college graduates, the reaction time of the higher education community in developing opportunity for many more Americans to receive far more education will be so slow as to be essentially useless. The rapidly changing needs and expectations of the job market will greatly outpace the ability of higher education to respond, resulting in an American economy that will quickly be overtaken by the economies of China and other countries and regions that are far more focused on expanding educational attainment than is the United States.

What do I mean by “catalyze?” Federal grants and loans to assist low-income individuals to obtain a college education began in 1965; the creation of the Pell Grants (initially, BEO Grants) occurred under a Republican president in 1972 — but almost from the beginning, the size of the grants did not keep pace with inflation, and today, while exceeding the price of tuition at most community colleges, the maximum Pell Grant is well short of the price of tuition at flagship public universities, let alone the price of tuition at private colleges.

And it is the other costs — room and board, transportation, books, and miscellaneous expenses — that are the true impediment for most low-income students, and the Pell Grants do not address those expenses.  State plans that offer “last dollar” tuition guarantees will assist middle-class Americans, who do not now qualify for financial aid, and will provide them much needed relief from the burden of student loans — but these plans will do little to create greater access for more students, and nothing to improve unacceptably low graduation rates.

The federal government must increase its investment in low-income students, by doubling the size of individual Pell Grants (to about $12,000 annually), if these students are to have any real opportunity to earn a college degree — and it is properly termed an investment, not an expense, because, beyond the general economic benefit of having a large workforce with the skills needed by the knowledge economy, over their working lifetimes, college graduates pay on average at least $200,000 more per individual in income taxes than do high school graduates. The federal government will make money by investing in the creation of more college graduates. Surely that argument should appeal to both Democrats and Republicans alike.

Higher education institutions must do their part. We must strive to be inclusive, not exclusive — we need to provide access to students in the bottom half of their graduating class, and then support them such that they are far more likely to graduate than they are to drop out. We must commit to a culture of anticipated success, not expected failure. We must focus on serving the public good, not protecting our ranking in U.S. News & World Report. And those commitments must be in place if we are to receive the benefits of increased government investment. (The government’s return on its investment, through the higher taxes paid by graduates, is directly proportional to the number of Pell recipients who actually graduate. I suggest limiting the availability of the enhanced Pell Grants to institutions that graduate at least half their entering class on time — either two years or four years, depending on whether we are referencing the associate’s degree or the baccalaureate.)

So my question, gentlemen, is: Can you — and will you — support the notion of a significant escalation in government support of higher education, in return for the commitment of the higher education community to do its part in creating pathways to success for a significantly larger number of students — including working adults, who need their own pathway, not the pathway built to serve teenagers? I stand ready to work with you, shoulder to shoulder, to rebuild the American economy by expanding post-secondary educational opportunities for far more Americans than are being served today. Rhode Island is the perfect site for a pilot study of this idea, and Roger Williams University, for one, will commit to being a partner. Thank you for your consideration.