It has been a long time since there was a clarion call for higher education. The GI Bill was likely the last national call of symbolism and significance. The country, drawn out of a depression from the war, was reluctant once again to risk high unemployment as hundreds of thousands of GIs returned home. A bold and untested idea was put into action, making it possible for the returning soldiers to enroll in higher education.
The nation has been better off ever since. Higher education, at first an unwilling partner, also benefited as these students and eventually their children, the baby boomers, enrolled in large numbers. This massive investment in human capital changed the fate of the nation. It provided the best-educated generation of Americans. The question now facing the nation is: What will it take to ensure educational excellence for all? The continued democratization of our country, so central to a globally-competitive economy, is closely intertwined with the democratization of our education system. We simply cannot afford to leave so many young and working-age adults behind.
So how might the nation begin to tackle education at this pivotal moment in history? I believe the best way is a strengthened federal-state partnership for education. In a nation as diverse as ours, it is unlikely that, acting alone, either the federal or state governments can address this challenge. It will require a renewed partnership, or a new federalism.
What might this new federalism look like?
The federal role in establishing meaningful educational goals with states is a place to begin. The president has articulated goals for higher education, as have many states, spurred by national foundations. While these goals are ambitious, they have weak political support or policies to sustain them. Building public support for these goals is critical. This means that, along with providing the nation with security and safety, education must rise to the top of the domestic policy agenda. It can no longer be seen as something that must be addressed after we fix health care, the economy, crime, and other public concerns.
Second, the strategic investment of scarce resources must match the commitment. The primary role of the federal government in the new partnership is to set the agenda, build and sustain political support across a wide array of actors, and fund a set of powerful incentives that encourage and steer states toward strategic investment and the implementation of effective policies. The role of the states, on the other hand, is to implement policies that best address these priorities, while also holding colleges and universities accountable for improvement. This division of responsibility can provide states and institutions with the latitude to address national goals adapted to their local circumstances.
Possible ideas to launch these incentives are:
- Establishing targets to improve educational attainment in each state, including closing gaps in achievement by income and race
- Creating a national “credit bank” for students to earn credits and degrees based on the demonstration of competencies—to show that quality need not be sacrificed for access
- Renewing FIPSE (Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education) governed by a quasi-governmental organization focused on two primary areas: innovation in technology-delivered education and the alignment of state policies between K-12 and higher education, two areas where innovation is desperately needed
- Building incentives for state student tracking systems with a set of common indicators across states that assess national progress
- Creating a quasi-governmental body responsible for designating (and updating) a list of leading research universities as the primary target for the investment of federal research dollars
- Forming a national compact for college affordability using current dollars for aid, as well as new resources targeted for the same purpose.
Participation in federal programs should also require significant state investment. Some states share a greater burden for educating the next generation than others. Based on the most recent census data, more than half of the minority population (and usually the fastest growing population) of the country is concentrated in five states; more than 70 percent is concentrated in 12 states. The economic well-being of the nation requires special attention to these states. Incentives for these states should be significantly more enticing, although all states should be eligible for incentive dollars.
Taken together these ideas encourage innovation and experimentation where it’s needed most and provide incentives for states to address a national imperative. Undoubtedly, more good ideas should be debated and added to this list. Little can be done, however, if political will is not built between the president and governors. Indeed, a great deal of money can be wasted absent such support. More importantly, a great deal of human talent will be wasted and deprive us of the opportunity to become a more fair and prosperous nation.
Photo Credit: U.S. News & World Report