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Democratizing the U.S. Education System to Save it

October 10, 2017

Can the democratization of the U.S. Education system be the long-term cure for today’s education crisis in the U.S.? My answer is probably yes, if it leads to providing broader access to better jobs, through relevant education at a lower cost. But before going into more detail, I need to briefly define the terms, “Education Crisis” and “Democratization” in the context of this post. 

 

By “Education Crisis” I mean the fact that the cost of education in the U.S. has skyrocketed over the years, even outpacing inflation, making it harder and harder to afford for all but the very well off. The average cost of tuition + fees at private universities has grown from $10,000 in ‘81-82 to $33,500 in ‘16-17 – a stunning $8,000 more than the cumulative inflation of the same dollar amount during the same time period. 

 

I wish I could say that household incomes of low- to middle-income earners on an inflation-adjusted basis have gone up as well since the 1980’s, but this is not the case. More importantly, the U.S. government is continuing to decrease financial aid funding, making college even more costly to families. Today, over 44 million Americans hold a jaw-dropping total of $1.4 trillion in student debt.  

 

In contrast, in countries like Germany and Sweden, students can attend university free of charge. Without going into more detail of what this means to society and the country as whole, this is the crisis I am referring to. 

 

The term “democratization” refers to a world where student degrees and certifications are judged and valued by employers based on the verification of skills relevant to work, qualifications and competencies without giving added credit to the name or brand of the school itself. It’s a world where a $10,000 online three-month coding boot camp in “Python” or “AWS cloud computing” can be more meaningful to an employer than a $300,000 degree from an elite private college.  And, let’s be honest, some degrees are at further risk (liberal arts, for example) because they do not readily translate into 21st century workplace skills, regardless of the pedigree – or the price - of the institution providing them.

 

It’s a world where employment-relevant and certifiable competencies trump an expensive school brand. It’s a world by which the measure of qualification and ranking is based on the scoring in a non-multiple choice statewide or national exam regardless of the school attended.

 

And, yes, we are slowly, moving in this direction. More and more non-profit colleges are expanding their “virtual” campuses and rolling out online programs to compete nationally with other schools for students that don’t have the time or money to attend college the traditional way. This has become a very competitive space, putting price pressure on universities to the benefit of the students.

 

In addition, as education is slowly evolving into a technology industry, we are seeing more edtech companies address the “education to workforce bridge,” the goal of which is to help align employers’ real-world workforce needs as expressed in job postings with the academic curriculum taught in schools.  One way of addressing it is by dividing the curriculum into its respective learning objects and aligning those to workforce relevant competencies and allowing students to master these competencies at their own speed. This is commonly referred to as “competency based learning.”  

 

Ultimately, it will be employers that drive the democratization the U.S. education system by giving more weight to actual workforce relevant competencies (whether hard or soft skills) and qualifications, than judging the job candidate by the name of the school s/he attended when making a hiring decision. With government funding on the decline, business is wielding greater influence, resulting in what a recent EdSurge piece called “recapitalization” of Higher Ed through the creation of microcredentials.  We are seeing this effort gather speed, and since schools go where the money is, 2017 could be “The Year of Microcredentials,” according to the same article.   

 

U.S. Higher Ed needs to prove its value and ROI for the families and students considering an investment in a college education. If the workplace no longer requires a brand-name college diploma, then what justifies spending hundreds of thousands of dollars (and most often amassing debt) to attain a degree? Graduates of European universities enter the global workforce with an important advantage – no college debt.  While this is a slightly different form of education democratization, it has the same effect of leveling the workplace playing field for all.  Perhaps Europe has something to teach the United States?

 

 

Torsten Geers is a partner in Good Harbor Partners.  He attended a number of prestigious German universities – at no cost – and graduated debt-free.

 

 

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