Last week, students around the country wrapped up their first week of the new school year, continuing their progression through an educational system designed to prepare them for the complex world awaiting them on the other side. For as long as the United States has had a federalized educational system, our schools have been designed to ensure that our nation’s youth have the skills needed to secure a spot in America’s middle class. While our system was effective in years past, a review of our country’s labor market provides us with some troubling information on the skills our students learn, and the skills our students need. Too often, our school systems force students to expend mental energy learning things that will serve them no purpose in life. Forcing students to memorize is different than teaching them. Currently, our educational system seeks to tame young and curious minds by sedating them with useless information they will be unable to recall mere weeks after they learn it. In the future, it will be important to introduce educational programs that incentivize creativity and innovation. For far too long, we have looked at our educational system without understanding how its shortcomings have contributed to rising income inequality and a shrinking middle class, this piece will seek to address those topics.
From pre-school to graduate school, the shortcomings with our educational system are abhorrent. For a long time, I’ve felt strongly that many of our country’s issues could be effectively remedied through a proper investment in our educational system. How can the United States, the richest country on earth, be content with the fact that 40% of low income schools are underfunded? By failing to invest in our youngest, poorest students, we are quite literally boxing them out the American dream before they can even formulate complete sentences. What about our high schools? Why is the fact that the Mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell drilled into the heads of every 9th grade Bio student, but then only 13% of high schoolers say they know what a 401k is? As previously stated, our educational system is supposed to prepare us for skills that translate into middle class jobs and a prosperous life, however it is clear that our system is falling short of these goals. In fact, 12% of American youths are neither in educational or employment training programs. Many of these individuals are from low income communities, where schools are grossly underfunded. In order for the United States to maintain competitiveness, this trend must be reversed. If our schools are not teaching students practical life skills like helping them understand what mortgages are, what are they teaching them? Once again, our schools are designed to give students the skills they need to carve out a comfortable middle class life. So, ask yourself, what industry has historically provided us with those type of employment opportunities?
While there is certainly more than one right answer, the “most right” is perhaps manufacturing, which propelled America to economic superiority after World War II. If you read our previous piece, you would have seen how manufacturing jobs have been in steady decline for the better part of 30 years. What was once an industry offering employment to 17.5 million Americans, the manufacturing industry now offers under 12 million job opportunities. This is understandable, when you consider the fact that US manufacturing must now compete with low wage manufacturing in Asia, where the same work can be done for a fraction of the price. Also, this trend shows us that the American middle class is evolving, and it is up to elected officials to see this transformation taking place and take action. Those types of manufacturing jobs will never achieve the level of prominence they once had, however, there is encouraging news coming from the scientific and technological communities:
Because of recent innovations, the United States is closer than you may think in achieving significant breakthroughs in the way we manufacture.
In the past, the manufacturing industry has employed a great deal of “low skilled” workers. As our economy has progressed, we have experienced a precipitous drop in demand for these “low skilled” workers, and their jobs have been shipped overseas. This has left a large amount of Americans with no place in our economy. For that reason, fewer and fewer people innovate, and hence, fewer and fewer people are enjoying the fruits of a capitalistic society. Wages must have a reason to rise. If we do not equip our middle class with new skills, their wages will never rise, and this will ultimately be our undoing. Rather than fighting this trend, it must be harnessed and understood so that we may better utilize our domestic workforce.
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United States has made significant strides in a number of industries that include (to name just a few):
- Advanced material manufacturing- Modifications to existing materials in order to optimize a particular material’s utility.
- Lightweight composite materials- The development of alternatives to existing manufacturing materials such as steel that are lighter, stronger, and less expensive when economized. Interestingly enough, this industry is expected to increase by over 100% in value over the course of the next ten years.
- Biofabrication- The creation of artificial tissue for medical purpose
So, since the US manufacturing industry is growing in demand for higher skilled workers, we must now make an adjustment to our educational system. In Florida, a recent bill that allows high school students to take computer coding as a foreign language was passed by state legislators. Although this doesn’t have much to do with something like advanced material manufacturing, it is certainly a step in the right direction, and is an initiative that should be adopted nationally, because that is a skill that translates to a employment. Furthermore, it has become clear that individuals without at least a two year degree are at a severe disadvantage when trying to find decent paying work. Making college affordable for all Americans is not some sort of moral argument that many have made it out to be; rather, this is an issue of severe economic impact. If we do not equip our labor force to meet the demands of the current labor market, we are setting ourselves up for a massive, irreconcilable failure.
While Democrats have made this a central item of their platform, I believe that their solution would be woefully ineffectual. Bernie Sanders’ plan to raise taxes on stock market transactions would unnecessarily harm our financial markets, and Hillary Clinton’s capital gains tax proposal would have put an enormously unfair burden on the real estate industry, as well as everyday Americans just looking to sell their homes. Instead, I would hope to see a plan I’ve seen that helps students pay for college in a way similar to our social security plan. Allow me to explain this idea:
Say you were an in state student who wanted to attend a state university with a tuition of $5,000 per semester. Now, imagine a government program that would cover your semester’s tuition as long as you met certain enrollment requirements. At the end of your 4 year education, you would then owe $40,000. So, how can we pay for this? Instead of broad, ineffective tax hikes, what if the government simply withheld a portion of your future paycheck if you agreed to enter this program?
I’ve always felt that the government is better suited to lend money to help students pay for education simply because they don’t need to make a large profit. Private lending firms on the other hand, do need to make a large profit. If you were given the choice between a loan with a 12% interest rate, or one that was just the principal amount of your loan adjusted for inflation, which would you chose?
While this doesn’t make college free, it now gives students a feasible way to pay their tuition back over a period of 7-10 or less years (if $200 from each paycheck was paid back to the government, it would only take 7.5 years to pay the entire cost of your education off). After reading this, one may feel that $200 off of every paycheck is pretty steep, but that is only when this policy is not used in conjunction with others. Expansion of educational savings accounts is another policy option that would significantly reduce the amount a former student had to pay back to the government. In my opinion, solutions like this helps us accomplish the goal of making college more affordable, without imposing unfair taxes on those who will never benefit from the program. This idea is one that I feel should be more thoroughly explored, surely there are a number of logistical questions to answer, and I welcome your thoughts on it. Perhaps the government would need to tac on a small interest rate of 2% (in addition to inflationary adjustments) in order to cover the initial cost of starting this program, but even so, I believe that the idea laid out above is one worth discussing.
Policy ideas like the ones discussed above, as well as allowing students to take computer coding courses as a form of foreign language, and expanding apprenticeship programs, are the innovative solutions we need as we move forward. Just by looking at raw data, it is clear that the skillset the middle class needs to thrive are rapidly changing, and we would be mistaking not to adapt this evolution. In my opinion, the next 25 years will be about which country can adapt to a digital world quickest. While it is not fair to say the United States has done a poor job, it is fair to say that we could be doing significantly more.