Everyone agrees that we have a crisis at all levels of education evidenced by:
•Budget slashing, cutbacks and teacher layoffs that are decimating primary and secondary schools.
•A disturbing 25 percent high school dropout rate between the freshman and senior year.
•At the college level, 30 percent drop out in the first year and more than 40 percent don't graduate.
•The crippling cost of higher education that continues to rise, which is freezing out many students and burdening 65.6 percent of them with debts they may carry well into adulthood ($100 billion in federal education loans plus $10 billion in private student loans are issued each year -- add to that the $850 billion in outstanding college loan debt that's growing at $2,854 per second according to the student loan debt clock.
The education crisis could not come at a worse time. The lingering recession, along with the economic challenges from the explosive economies of India and China, is fostering the decline of our middle class. This is certain to lead to a diminished position in the world economy. A deteriorating education system can only accelerate the trend.
Here's another reason that the education crisis stands to have a disastrous impact on America's economic future. The longevity revolution, which has added 50 percent to life expectancy over the last century -- and continues to add years to the average lifespan -- has spawned an elderly population that is growing at an accelerated rate, far outstripping the younger productive workforce. From 40 workers per retiree when Social Security was enacted, we now have about three workers per retiree and are heading to less than two. In this new world, where older adults will be the single largest age group, we will need every able-bodied and educated worker for America to support its elderly population and compete in the technology-based world economy. But that's not what's happening.
New York Times columnist, Bob Herbert recently sounded an alarm when he noted that the U.S., formerly the leader among developed nations in the percentage of college graduates, has sunk to number twelve. And the trajectory is pointing downward. President Obama has also warned of the bleak social and economic consequences of our crumbling educational system. And a recent survey by TD Ameritrade adds another dreary note. Thirty-six percent of teenagers, the survey says, are comfortable with putting off college to save money for the financial crunch of entering college.
Educator Geoffrey Canada, featured in the documentary Waiting for Superman, cautions us not to expect a Superman or super theory to rescue American education. He urges diligent attention to improving the traditional nuts and bolts of education with an emphasis on parent and community involvement. But all the public hand wringing about this state of affairs has produced no viable solution that is practical for the vast majority of schools. In fact, most of the proposals offered are familiar band-aids rather than creative new initiatives.
These have not had measurable success in the past and do not address the complexities of the present problem: a shrinking and inadequately educated workforce, coupled with a rapidly growing "nonproductive" older population, a persistent and intractable high school dropout rate, and the skyrocketing cost of higher education.
"Let's throw a little money at the problem to salvage some programs, increase tutoring, pay teachers a bit more, introduce motivational programs to keep kids in school, improve teacher training, encourage more parent involvement, expand student loan programs."
But there is a solution, and it's staring right at us. We don't see it because ironically, the people who can reverse our free-fall are stereotyped as unproductive burdens -- takers not makers. I'm referring to the huge army of seniors. In addition to the current 40 million Americans over age 65, 77 million baby boomers will begin crossing that line in 2011.
Seniors embody a vast reservoir of skills, talent and wisdom that we gratuitously salute but do not harness for productive roles. How can seniors save American education and insure a 21st century-ready workforce? Let's start with higher education.
Enter the Third Age Free Wisdom University (TAFWU), a free degree-granting institution of higher education staffed by volunteer retired college professors and other professionals. The curriculum would be delivered to students nationwide using interactive technologies like Skype. Some experts predict that virtually all higher education will be delivered in this fashion in the near future, replacing the current medieval system of classroom lectures. With TAFWU, no qualified student would be left behind or excluded for lack of financial resources.
TAFWU would be modeled after the Center for Learning and Living (CL&L) at Marymount Manhattan College. I was Executive Director of the Center for three years so I know it is a model that works and that can be duplicated on a much larger scale. While the Center for Learning and Living was a lifelong learning program for 50-plus adults, the same principles and structure can be applied to a college-age population.
When Bill Musham, a member of the Board of Trustees at Marymount, proposed staffing CL&L with volunteer retired teachers and professionals, some people thought the idea was preposterous. Why would retirees teach courses without pay? Much to our surprise, ads in the New York Times, local community publications and word-of-mouth quickly produced a faculty for CL&L. Many volunteers were world-class teachers from leading colleges and universities. A good example is Charles Carshon, formerly Chairman of the Arts Division and Studio Theater at Sarah Lawrence College, and also a teacher at the renowned Stella Adler Theater Studio in New York. Another, Ina Schlesinger, Professor Emerita of Political Science at the State University of New York. The faculty also included leading men and women from business, the arts and government.
While Manhattan, where Marymount is located, is blessed with a concentration of retirees who are qualified to teach high-level courses, so are other communities throughout the U.S. And with the emergence of technologies like Skype, which many universities and colleges are using even for resident students, as well as distant learning courses, education can be delivered from any location. With a vast national corps of retirees qualified to teach college level courses, location of the students and teachers is no longer a limitation.
And what about the other parts of the problem? How can the huge population of seniors transform themselves into makers -- and thus empower the generations that follow, which hold the key to America's future?
The lynchpin for the success of TAFWU is the establishment of neighborhood locations throughout America, where all retired seniors will report for volunteer assignments -- a program that I spelled out in a previous article, Paying for a Longer Life. These Third Age Centers for Productivity, are based on a new ethic of aging that calls for all seniors to volunteer for service, to the extent possible, that directly or indirectly contributes to productivity. In addition to aiding and mentoring young and middle-aged workers and entrepreneurs, the Productivity Centers will provide a base from which qualified retired professionals can address educational needs at the primary and secondary levels. Skilled retired volunteers could restore and enrich art and music programs that have been trashed on the heels of steep budget cuts. Seniors could also provide role models, mentoring, tutoring and social support for children in their communities who lack social safety nets.
The Centers will correct a flaw in the current system of volunteerism by establishing neighborhood locations where one-on-one personal counseling and shepherding can effectively absorb millions of baby boomers into volunteer service.
This nationwide network of local service centers can be relatively cost free. Businesses and corporations can be persuaded to participate in the program to strengthen America through senior service and free college education by providing space for the Centers. Some corporations and business -- Crown America Corporation, Boscov's Department Stores, Wachovia Bank, to name a few -- are already offering free facilities for community use. And when businesses see the human traffic generated in these locations, they may very well compete to offer free space, or even pay for the privilege.
Once established, the Centers will serve as the main hubs where teachers can use technology for delivering TAFWU courses to students anywhere. The local centers would also provide one-on-one mentoring, discussion and tutoring by other TAFWU volunteer teachers. This would resemble the teaching assistant (TA) system that virtually all universities and colleges use. It would provide a personal comprehensive learning experience comparable, and possibly superior, to what is offered at resident colleges and universities.
TAFWU and the Third Age Centers for Productivity will not only restore seniors to a rightful vital role in society, they will forever transform the image of seniors from takers to makers. And just lessening the burden of the cost of college education could make a significant contribution to America's economy. U.S. families spend more than $220 billion each year on higher education. Feed some of that vast sum into our spending-starved general economy and it could help pull us out of recession.
Tom Brokaw wrote passionately about the "Greatest Generation" -- today's oldest seniors -- that 70 years ago heroically mobilized to save America from an external threat. Now their children -- the baby boom generation -- have the opportunity to save America from the dangerous internal threat of deteriorating education, which places our future in jeopardy. The baby boomers can become an even greater generation as they build a foundation that will guarantee this nation's global leadership well into the 21st century and beyond.
Yes, seniors can make a difference. It may be true that Superman can't save American Education -- but Super Seniors can!