Labor Day marks the beginning of the new school year, but like many traditions, this one is being reevaluated to address new needs. What is the best way for us to have an educated population while we face a challenging economic environment both at home and internationally? Can we afford to take the summer off? Can we afford to think that "back to school" just applies to kids? And what schools can help us achieve the President's goal to have more college graduates than any other nation by 2020?
The issue of longer academic years and longer school days is challenging, but in the end, it's a realistic and creditable solution. Besides, President Obama is for it. When you compare the quality of education that students get today versus what they could get with additional instruction - not to mention what our international competitors are already doing -- it makes a compelling case for this drastic change. Teachers know it, professionals who are dealing with recent graduates know it, and even some students admit to it. An intern from my organization even blogged about it this summer. To be fair, we are not talking about taking away the entire summer school break. But adding some academic component to the summer has been happening gradually with assignments like summer reading lists. In addition, having four mini-breaks in coordination to the seasons, could provide young people with more varied and diverse recreation opportunities.
Let's be clear though, it's not only kids who need additional education. With an astonishing 7,000 high school students every day joining the dropout ranks, we are creating a pool of adults who will need additional education if they are to compete in the work force. The jobs of the future will require additional technical training, more advanced math, science, as well as critical and analytical thinking. The phrase "back to school" will start to be recognized less as a sales slogan and more to workers upgrading their skills and gaining additional academic credentials. Single parents and working adults don't need a September start time for classes - they need the flexibility of online, evening, and weekend instruction.
Adult students are less concerned with Greek life, cheering college football, or attending homecoming events. Harvard, UCLA, and the University of Chicago aren't necessarily the best fit for them -- though their extension programs may work for some. Community colleges have filled this niche in many ways for liberal arts and technical careers, but the growth of career colleges (or for-profit schools) has also helped thousands take the next step in their professional careers. Now there is some controversy over these for-profit schools, but I think the criticism does not affect the whole career college industry and we must analyze it while recognizing that there is a place for these schools while our country tries to regain its educational rankings. Concerns have been raised about practices at some of the schools, and the Government Accountability Office has issued a report documenting problems with some schools whose over-zealous recruiters over-promise future earnings, even encouraging fraud to qualify for unaffordable government student loans. As the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has said, the industry merits more scrutiny and regulation by Congress and the Administration. But CREW also recognizes that certain stock-speculators seem to be involved in the process of scrutinizing the institutions for their own short-term financial gains; a possible murky mix of potential investors and potential regulators claiming to represent students' best interests. Setting the right regulatory structure is important for the students, for the schools, and for the nation. But let's not allow Wall Street decide the regulatory structure. Recent history tells us this is not the way to proceed.
It is in the nation's best interest that every student who is academically qualified should have an opportunity to attend college. In contrast to the 1800's, when it was the exclusive province of wealthy white males, higher education should be as broadly accessible as secondary school. Moreover, in order to reach the President's goal for more college graduates, we need as many accredited schools as possible. That includes my alma mater, Michigan State University, as well as Bryant and Stratton College in Richmond, Virginia, where I was honored to be the commencement speaker this past spring. The students at those schools may have different needs and expectations, but they also have something in common, a desire for higher education. Watching the pride and excitement of the graduating faces in Richmond reminded me of my own graduation. It made me proud, not only of them, but of our nation, which has such a diverse and creative ability to address the hopes and aspirations of those who want to go back to school. After all, Labor Day is right around the corner.