09/14/2012 12:04 pm ET Updated Nov 14, 2012

A Mandate for Education

On the day that Chicago's public school teachers went on strike (they wanted a 19 percent pay increase, the city's education board was offering 2 percent), it paid to read and reread Thomas Friedman's weekend column in the New York Times of Sept. 8.

Writing, perhaps most appropriately from Shanghai, Friedman wonders out loud whether China will follow the example of Estonia (home of the inventors of Skype as he points out) in adding programming to their pre-school curriculum.

Meanwhile, back in the USA, Friedman notes that high school dropouts are suffering a 12 percent unemployment rate, nearly triple that of college graduates. And yet nearly three million jobs remain open in a nation with an 8.2 percent overall unemployment rate and folks dropping out of the labor force in droves.

Friedman's prescription, which he wishes would become post-convention platforms of either or both political parties, is for the U.S. to double down on its bet on education, especially for the new jobs driven by new technologies. As Friedman put it, "if you want a decent job that leads to a decent life, you have to work harder, regularly reinvent yourself, have at least some form of postsecondary education, [and] make sure you're engaged in lifelong learning..." His implicit premise: if we don't, China will, and they're a lot bigger threat to our economic sovereignty than Estonia.

The most efficient way to fund the needed investment in postsecondary learning is by supporting nonprofit colleges, whether public or private, that focus on helping the college drop-outs and the upwardly mobile strivers complete their studies while they hold on to the jobs they may already have, and even move on to the 'gold standard' graduate degrees in the 'new jobs' field that we are even now failing to fill with our own citizens. (I speak from experience as dean emeritus of the Ageno School of Business at Golden Gate University, which has been serving working adult learners in San Francisco from a private, nonprofit base for well over a century.)

Nonprofit schools have higher rates of graduation and lower rates of loan defaults than their for-profit competitors, which have taken advantage of 90 percent tuition financing from the U.S. government to develop powerful student recruitment programs -- using 25 percent or more of those tuition dollars for marketing, often even less than they spend on actual educational functions. And they leave taxpayers stuck with the bill when students who don't get degrees wind up defaulting on their loans because they cant get those good "new jobs."

Investment in the far more efficient returns-on-investment of nonprofit higher education, especially community colleges, would be a lot smarter for the taxpayers in both the short and long-run. For-profit tuition is priced well above public university tuition even with all the recent hikes to make up for state budget cuts, so it costs less to subsidize. And even private schools like Golden Gate University produce cost efficiencies by employing practitioner faculty that is directly experienced with how new jobs are emerging in their fields, and therefore can deliver more bang for the tuition buck and a better record of student loan repayment.

In a society currently dominated by the voting power of the aging "boomer" generation, it's not surprising that an "I've got mine, Jack" philosophy when it comes to public educational investment might take hold, especially in the wake of the Great Recession (perpetrated on all of us by the "best and the brightest" of the boomers themselves). But do the baby boomers want their final "achievement" for the history books to be the demise of U.S. global economic leadership caused by their collective unwillingness to make the same level of investment in education that got them their own start through a series of economic boom times?

There is strong evidence that the boomers are retiring (to the extent they can) with a residual desire to 'do good as well as do well.' While there are many individual pathways to achieve that objective, one last thing that generation can do together is to restore America's commitment to provide access to a higher education opportunity to all those who a ready, willing and able to pursue it. The truth is, we're going to need those graduates some day soon -- not only to help pay for the boomers Medicare, but also to fill those unfilled jobs of the future that are already here right now, with millions more on the way. Otherwise, they will be filled by the preschool programmers in China (and Estonia).