There has been a lot of negative news lately about the state of education in America. New research has shown that poverty increasingly prevents many high-achieving students from attending college and climbing the economic ladder. Despite frequent complaints, college tuition also continues to rise as states cut back on their funding for public schools and as private schools compete for the best faculty and facilities.
However, despite these problems technological, social, and academic trends give reason to hope that American education will continue to improve student’s lives and the competitiveness of the economy as a whole.
First, the cost of education is also on the cusp of a downward trend as technology lowers the barriers to advanced study. Online programs such as MIT’s MITx, Udacity, and Straighterline increasingly offer certified courses for much less than what it would cost to purse a degree traditionally. This enables students to study on the side while they continue to work in any location, ever improving the quality and distribution of human capital in the country. Moreover, thanks to the increasing saturation of college education in the population at large, the stigma associated with online programs will slowly decrease over time to the point where they may one day be as acceptable as degrees from lower tier colleges.
The skill mismatch between employer needs and labor capabilities is also increasingly apparent as Americans search for work amidst the worst recession in decades. While the number of jobs available for liberal arts, social science, and even STEM field graduates has proven scarce, positions requiring middle skill workers — e.g. nutritionists, welders, and nurse aids — remain unfilled. The National Foundation for Independent Businesses recently found that 32% of business owners could not find qualified applicants. Consequently, it is becoming more widely known that the college path is not the only one to success, and that technical education through community colleges or trade schools can provide the specialized skills that employers need. Fortunately, the Obama administration is tackling this issue by proposing to increase federal funding by $12 billion over 10 years for community colleges, but more could be done to encourage/subsidize apprenticeships and educate families with high-school age children.
Finally, American scholarship on the problems afflicting school performance has also reached a new level of understanding and consensus after years of study testing numerous hypotheses. Two of the biggest problems with our public schools is the quality of the learning environment, as determined by teachers and academic programs established by the school administration, and the governance structure that limits the ability of schools to reform themselves. Even though many principals are aware of the problems afflicting their schools, it is incredibly challenging to fix them when they need to balance the competing demands of teachers’ unions, communities, state leaders, and federal programs simultaneously. People have consequently been tackling these problems by creating more activist learning environments, which has led to a 3.5% increase in high school graduation rates, as well as more private charter schools to enhance administrative flexibility to institute the best academic programs for their students. If more profound and systematic efforts were taken to cultivate active learning environments as well as to simplify school governance, this change could be further accelerated.
Consequently, while the country still struggles to ensure that everyone obtains the best possible education and that students obtain the skills necessary to be productive workers and good citizens, technological, social, and academic trends give good reason to be optimistic. Access to education is growing as the costs are falling, education preferences are diversifying, and the focus of contemporary reform efforts are about where they should be. It is very likely that the future of American education is much brighter than the present.