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If America is going to lead in the global economy, American businesses will need the best and brightest students in the world—students who can create, collaborate, communicate, and innovate. And America needs these students to be educated right here. Unfortunately, our education system has become woefully mediocre compared with the rest of the world.
Out of 34 industrialized nations, the United states ranks 17th in reading, 21st in science, and 26th in math. We are 16th in the world in the share of adults between the ages of 25 and 34 who hold a college degree. Simply put, our competitors are educating more of their citizens to higher levels while the United States remains idle. This is bad for American businesses and bad for Americans.
By 2020, 65% of all jobs in the economy will require some postsecondary training beyond high school. If we continue at our current pace, we will fall short by 5 million workers. We must strengthen U.S. education and job training by aligning these systems to the needs of our economy.
Last year, the federal government took a necessary step to improve our K-12 system by reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, titled the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The bipartisan legislation, signed into law by President Obama, loosens the federal role in K-12 and gives states the flexibility to customize their own systems. Locally driven solutions with appropriate supports by the federal government can help improve our K-12 system. And while ESSA gives flexibility to the states, it will be important for Washington to ensure that underserved students in America are given all the opportunities their wealthier peers are afforded. Washington can’t just focus on K-12, however.
We need more people accessing postsecondary training in order to succeed in today’s workplace. No longer is a high school degree enough to make a middle class wage and support a family. Those days are gone. A postsecondary credential today is equivalent to a high school degree 30 years ago.
Simply enrolling in higher education is not enough. Students must complete their postsecondary education. Fewer than half of students who enter a four-year postsecondary program actually graduate in six years; less than 3 out of 10 students who enroll in community college full time graduate in three years. Failure to complete a postsecondary program straps students with financial debt without opening the door to higher paying jobs.
Understandably, rising tuition costs and student debt are deterring more and more students from pursuing higher education. Many are asking if college is actually worth it. As students and families decide where to spend tens of thousands of dollars, they should have the necessary information to determine which programs and schools will give them the most bang for their buck. Families deserve to know how employable their children will be when they cross the stage to receive their diploma.
This is something the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation is working on. Through a partnership with USA Funds, Gallup, Inc., and the American Institutes for Research, the Foundation launched an easy-to-use online web tool in select states that provides clear information on a program’s value in the job market. It offers students and adult workers looking to skill up the data to make informed decisions about their postsecondary options and their value with employers.
Our country also needs to ensure that our postsecondary system is responsive to employer needs. Historically, there has been a disconnect between what students learn in classrooms and what employers are looking for in potential hires. In a rapidly changing economy, employers are working to better coordinate and collaborate with those postsecondary institutions that can meet their hiring needs. Nevertheless, Washington needs to lead in incentivizing solutions to make certain that students enter the workforce with the skills they need to compete for jobs in the high-skilled 21st century workforce.
Through workforce legislation like the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, Washington can lead by supporting programs that align workforce skills with labor market needs; expand support for dual- or concurrent-enrollment programming; integrate industry-recognized credentials; and increase support for work-based learning activities through innovation grants and state leadership activities.
Proven strategies like these, customized at the local level, can go a long way toward closing the skills gap in our country—currently more than 5 million jobs and growing. It will take strong leadership, innovation, and collaboration among education, business, and government to improve education, get more Americans the skills needed for success, and make our country the envy of the world.