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Higher Education for the 21st Century

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I don't know what a twenty-first century job looks like. As much as they talk about education preparing young people for 21st century jobs, I don't think Barack Obama or Mitt Romney have a clue either. Based on the impact of technological change on the workforce during the last century, I don't think anyone really knows for sure.

Image a debate between William McKinley (Republican) and William Jennings Bryan (Democrat), major party Presidential candidates in 1900. When the discussion came to jobs, they would have promised to better prepare Americans for 20th century jobs. But the jobs they were most familiar with would have mostly been on farms and in factories. And the workers would have been as young as 10 years-old. In 1900 there were about 30 million working people in the United States, counting everyone over the age of ten. While some states had begun to restrict child labor, there were no federal restraints on child labor until 1916 and those were overturned two years later by the Supreme Court.

Virtually none of the jobs they would have wanted schools to prepare American young people to take even exist in the United State anymore. Common jobs at the beginning of the 20th century included hod carriers, rail straighteners, blacksmiths, moulders, turners, wire drawers, pick miners, shot firers, glass blowers, and mule drivers, jobs which soon disappeared. Seven thousand children worked as newsboys in 1900. There were ten million skilled and unskilled manual workers. The largest groups of manual workers included 1.5 million factory workers and over 600,000 coal miners. Two and a half million people worked as service workers in 1900, which included housekeepers and laundresses. Almost eleven million people worked on farms.

According to the Historical Statistics of the United States prepared by the Bureau of the Census, in 1900 there were 134,000 stenographers/typists/secretaries but no computer designers, programmers, or operators -- because there weren't any computers. By 1950 there were 1.6 million stenographers/typists/secretaries and, in 1970, 3.9 million. These were major sources of employment for women entering the work force up until the last couple of decades of the 20th century. But with the development of computers and new audio and recording technologies stenography has disappeared, typing is a lost art, and secretaries are becoming less necessary.

All this is the long-way-around of saying that higher education cannot just be about preparing people for specific jobs, because those jobs might not be around much longer. One futuristic website predicts the key areas for job growth during the next decade as biomedical engineers, data communications analysts, and home health aides and attendants. The first two sound like you can build a career in the field, unless, of course, it becomes outsourced to another country where the work can be done more cheaply. The second two are low skill and low wage.

Higher education is going to have to be about preparing people to think and problem solve so they can adapt to change. It is also going to have to be about preparing people to be thoughtful participants and activists in a democratic society.

Unfortunately, right now higher education in the United States is trapped in a series of crises, many of which are related to cost and some to corporate raiders looking to privatize the more profitable pieces, a plan supported by Mitt Romney.

If higher education is going to prepare Americans for any type of future, reform is desperately needed. These are my short-term and long-range proposals.

Short-term Changes:
1. Empower the federal Office of Post-Secondary Education in the U.S. Department of Education to actively regulate post-secondary public, private, and proprietary schools.
2. Immediate federal regulation of all post-secondary for-profit proprietary schools that engage in interstate commerce to ensure quality of programs, graduation and job placement rates, and honest advertising. Close proprietary programs that do not meet federal post-secondary standards.
3. Immediate federal regulation of all higher education colleges, community colleges, and universities who want their students to be eligible for federal Pell grants loans and loan guarantees (FAFSA) to ensure quality of programs, graduation and job placement rates, and honest advertising.
4. Immediate federally financed cancellation of all public and private students loans -- interest and principal. Student debt now exceeds one trillion dollars and is a crippling anchor on the American future.
5. Investigation of online programs and courses to determine whether they provide students with quality college-level education on par with regular college programs.
6. Apply guidelines similar to No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top to ensure that all demographic groups are served by post-secondary school programs.

Long-range Proposals:
1. Free public higher education for all qualified students modeled on the old CUNY system and systems in Scandinavian countries, especially the program in Denmark that provides students with a monthly stipend while they continue their higher education.
2. Voluntary integration of private non-profit colleges into a federal public college system.
3. Direct federal aid to state and federal public universities to replace student loan system.
4. No public money to remaining private universities.
5. Federal employment programs with private partners to fully utilize the skills of college graduates.