We've all heard that a high school diploma alone is no longer sufficient for most students to maximize their career earning potential. According to the Social Security Administration, men with bachelor's degrees earn roughly $900,000 more in median lifetime earnings than high school graduates, while men with graduate degrees earn $1.5 million more. The same trend holds true for women, as well.
However, it's becoming increasingly clear that college on its own isn't a simple and straightforward solution to a better quality of life. Students increasingly find themselves carrying a staggering amount of debt away from their undergraduate and graduate studies.
As of 2018, an incredible $1.5 trillion in US student loan debt was being carried – compare that to the $620 billion of total US credit card debt – while Class of 2017 graduates were carrying, on average, more than $39,400 of student loans as they walked across the graduation stage.
Despite these heavy loads, the route to a return on that investment isn't always clear. Employers are finding that many students leave college still lacking the skills they so desperately need, for which they'll compensate highly in a tight job market. The Smithsonian Institute notes that roughly 2.4 million jobs in STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics – fields have gone unfilled as of 2018, and minorities remain deeply underrepresented across the board.
Meanwhile, NPR notes that trade jobs, such as those focused on carpentry, electrical work, plumbing, pipe-fitting, and more – are increasingly difficult for construction companies to fill. Similarly, many highly compensated health care jobs don't require a four-year degree, but instead require a more specialized track of education. This is to say nothing of the vast number of Information Technology positions that place almost no weight on holding a college degree, while heavily prizing applicants who've demonstrated their skills by earning industry-recognized certifications.
In all, Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce notes that roughly 30 million US jobs pay an average of $55,000 per year with no bachelor's degree requirement, while the average college graduate can expected to make roughly $50,000 after walking across the graduation stage.
Given the inertia of educational practices, difficulties with skilled worker immigration, and the continued shift in our economy away from the sort of clerical and managerial roles that benefitted most from a general college degree, and towards deeper levels of expertise and specialization, this is a trend that will only continue to grow. While higher education must adapt to these changes in its own way, it's essential that K-12 education leads the way, better preparing students to be highly compensated, successful in their fields of choice, and unburdened with the shackles of student loans that don't offer an effective rate of return.
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It used to be called Home Ec. For many students, it was an important opportunity to learn the basics of daily life as an adult: how to balance a checkbook, manage a budget, conduct themselves in social situations, understand nutrition, and take care of themselves effectively. Over time, this idea has been fractured and diminished or pushed aside in order to make more time for core classes subject to standardized testing. It's time for a reboot of this old idea that prepares today's students for tomorrow's challenges, lending them the skills necessary to navigate a changing world.
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Those of us fortunate enough to graduate college were all given some variation of the same speech along the way: Your connection to these hallowed halls is now permanent, you'll remember these as the best days of your life, this place shaped who you'll be and what you'll accomplish, and giving back so that future generations can have a similarly transformational experience is something to be done early and often. In case the message didn't set in at commencement, it's fair to expect calls from alumni services in the future for fundraising drives, emails about alumni events, and copies of quarterly or annual alumni magazines to arrive in the mailbox. Colleges and universities even have a knack for tracking former students down when they move, change phone numbers, or shift email accounts.
Alumni outreach is so central at many institutions of higher learning because it's so critical to their missions and viability. The Council for Aid to Education estimated that more than $11.37 billion was donated collectively by college and university alumni to their alma maters in 2017 alone.
If college is what shapes many people, it's their years from kindergarten until wrapping up their senior year of high school that allow them to take form. Most of us have a story about that teacher, the one who made an impact on us at a young age. I was lucky enough to have many of these, and know that high school, in particular, was the time that allowed me to begin becoming who I am today.
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Picture this: you're running late for a flight, with an important presentation coming up later that day. The security line is long. TSA representatives loudly, slowly repeat the same reminders: no liquids in bags, remove all electronics, take off your shoes, keep your ID with you. Dogs are walked nearby, sniffing bags, while an agent brushes a wipe against a woman's hands to check for explosives residue. Another woman is led away to a private screening area after setting off the metal detector one too many times with the earrings she forgot to remove.
How do you feel in this moment? Does it make you feel safe? At peace? Secure? Or does stress begin to well up inside you just thinking about it?
We live in troubled times. School shootings and violence are serious issues. We can't be naive, or fail to adopt any reasonable measure to protect our students. But we must also constantly ask ourselves whether the actions we take work to preserve their childhoods, allow them room to grow, and make them feel safe. Those are the policies that we should pursue.