President Obama's White House Education Summit brought into sharp relief the contradictions rending the current education system apart. The president is in a bind. On the one hand, he is committed to equality in education and right that the costs are too high. On the other, his own government is making more profit off of student debt than Apple and Exxon Mobil profit off of computers and oil. The very system he seeks to reform is designed to perpetuate the very inequalities and escalating costs he is seeking to remedy.
The tragedy is that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Student debt across the United States has now grown so large that it is now beginning to be a drag on the overall economy. Student debt now exceeds credit card debt, running upwards of $1.2 trillion, making it the largest debt sector in the economy with the exception of the housing debt.
In the U.S. accreditation system, schools have no incentive to cut costs because the government covers the student loans, no matter how high. According to the Higher Education Policy Institute, educational costs have soared 603 percent since 1982, while the Consumer Price Index has increased only 148 percent. And while the universities get the money, the students pay the principle and the interest. It is corruption at its most egregious for its victims are the innocent and the young. A system that produces massive numbers of indebted students is unprecedented in the entire very long history of education.
The average cost per year for U.S. colleges is around $33,000. Overwhelmingly, students getting into college cannot afford this, resulting in an average debt load upon graduation of upwards of $30,000, substantially higher for medical and legal degrees.
There are now escalating bankruptcies (and suicides) among young people in their twenties due to education debt, something completely unknown a generation ago. To its everlasting shame, Congress stipulated in the 2005 Bankruptcy Act that even if they declare bankruptcy, students still owe the money. One of the beneficiaries of this is the government itself. Through the Department of Education, it has collected more than $100 billion in interest from the students for its massive loans.
The reason students are finding it harder to pay back the debt is not that they are sluggards. It is because upwards of 53 percent of all college graduates are either unemployed or underemployed.
The jobs they took out their debt to obtain have largely evaporated. Education in America is churning out indentured servants, not workers suited for the jobs or societal challenges of the future.
Staggering debt is not the only challenge. Education in America is generally considered worse off today by almost every indicator than in 1983 when President Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education issued its report, "A Nation at Risk." America's ranking continues to slip in relation to other industrial nations. We have had endless reform and virtually no improvement. What our schools are teaching and how they are teaching shape our deepening educational crisis of which escalating debt is only a part. Elite Ivy League schools, state schools like the land grant colleges of the Midwest, denominational institutions of all kinds, and local community colleges all across the nation are all fundamentally based on an outmoded industrial model, whereby students essentially attend lectures, memorize facts, and express themselves analytically in tests.
The sad fact is that education has not changed much since the mid-1800s when Prussia first, then the United States, developed public education for the masses. The educational system they devised sought to accomplish two major objectives -- teach the three Rs so that workers would have the basic writing and computational literacy needed to work effectively in the factories; and train for conformity, so graduates would become compliant workers in the industrial economy. This approach integrated millions of ordinary people into the industrial system and helped create the modern democratic state and economy.
But history has radically accelerated and with it the jobs and workers required for a post-industrial political economy. According to an IBM study in 2012, which interviewed 3600 students and 1700 CEOs in 60 countries worldwide. The conclusion: the critical need now is not for industrial workers but for creative leaders able to think outside the very system that produced them.
Topping the list of what global CEOs and students are looking for as they face the future are creative thinking, the capacity to collaborate, the capacity to communicate effectively, the capacity to be open, flexible and empathetic, and operate in a global context. Simple technical and mathematical knowledge -- that which our schools are currently designed to teach and with which our accrediting agencies are concerned -- ranked low on the list.
The emerging demand by our global corporations and by students for an education relevant to the future before them is opening up extraordinary opportunities for renewal and re-design. "No sector operates more inefficiently than education," said Forbes in a cover story on November 11, 2013, and "a new breed of disruptors is going to fix it." The article predicted that disruptive education will be "the next $1 trillion opportunity," rivaling the dot-com boom of the 1990s.
The educational Holy Grail of our time is to train our young people with both the core competencies and collaborative creativity they will need, using all the technologies and methodologies at our disposal from MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses, modular and competency based design, and the full panoply of technological innovations coming into the market, plus making this possible through affordable prices. This, not protecting the current system, should be the remit of education.
If we do not educate our young, we not only forfeit their future, we invite impoverishment and unrest. If we do educate them for the world that is coming by emphasizing collaborative creativity as well as knowledge, entrepreneurship as well as core competencies, mastery of their interior realms as much as the capacity to navigate in the world, they will rise to the challenges before them because we will have equipped them to be change agents in their world. Our young are our future. Let us honor them as such. This is what the revolution engulfing education is all about.