04/02/2009 09:03 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Education by Inches?

With all of President Obama's lofty rhetoric on education, surprisingly few innovative policies have materialized. While he recognizes that "a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity -- it is a prerequisite," his policies haven't yet matched his words. We know--Obama knows--that the rest of the world is passing ahead of us in education and competitiveness. The current education strategies limit our progress, but rather than leaping forward we continue to slowly plod, keeping our heads down and ignoring the length of the journey and the speed of our competitors. To catch up, to ensure a quality higher education for every aspiring student, we must look towards the horizon and start accelerating.

Obama did prioritize education in his 2010 budget and stimulus package, more than doubling the size of the education department's budget and making Arnie Duncan one of the most powerful Education Secretaries in history. Though much of the $100 billion in stimulus education money will go to K-12 programs, Obama's plan will significantly invest in existing federal higher education programs. Their three-pronged approach to confronting disparities in higher education and college costs deserves praise for its simplicity and short-term impact. Expanding the Pell Grant program by $17 billion over the next four years addresses a clear need and increases college opportunities without increasing federal bureaucracy. Investing $200 million in Federal Work Study programs (FWS) empowers students to take responsibility for their education while not saddling them with pernicious post-college debt. And the HOPE tax credit, expansion of 529 savings plans, increased job training programs and other education investments provide much needed money and direction to existing government initiatives.

But we can't just slowly push our programs and agencies in the right direction. We need bolder, bigger action; the times demand it. Our future and the social, economic and cultural health of our nation depend on an educated populace. We have a moral imperative and an economic necessity to ensure that our higher education system is accessible to all and competitive across the world. And current plans don't move us far enough in that direction.

Our solutions must match the scale of our problems. The skyrocketing cost of college tuition has not only put increasing strain on current middle class families, but has threatened to make higher education a luxury accessible only to the rich. Our generation will be confronted with some of the most daunting challenges of the past century--from a two-theater war, to a global energy crisis to a worldwide recession. We will be competing for jobs with not just our neighbors down the street or graduates from across the country, but with applicants from around the world.

We need the skills and knowledge to confront these challenges--and that requires not only bigger thinking but action on a grand scale. As we highlight in Thinking Big, a new book by the Progressive Ideas Network, this country needs to start investing in its future with significant outlays for innovative education programs, including teacher training, school construction and technology overhauls.

Right now we're inching forward. That's no way to win a race.

-David Carlson and Nate Loewentheil, The Roosevelt Institution

David Carlson serves as Roosevelt's Education Policy Director and Nate Loewentheil serves as Executive Director: