Mr. Obama, here's how to become the 'education president'

President Obama has defined education as a cornerstone of his legacy as president.  He draws upon rich historical traditions such as the GI Bill that broadened education from classical and professional training to an expectation for most Americans.

We have come a long way from the grand experiments of the first phase of modern educational expansion (1945-1980) that responded to a growing middle class, a need for cutting-edge research and technology, an interest in producing STEM graduates, and the demand for a technology-driven workforce.

As the educational seeds planted flourished or withered on the vine during these years, America’s global ambitions, the demand to hold down taxes, and the need to consolidate the effects of rapid growth effectively “institutionalized” education, illustrated by the creation of the US Department of Education.

This second phase (1980-2010) was less exciting, more defensive and less progressive perhaps, but a logical reaction to earlier expansion. With less federal discretion came increased calls for accountability.  At the heart of this debate however remains one inescapable fact – that like it or not America has staked its claim to global competitiveness on its knowledge-based economy.


What, then, are the first education steps that President Obama should take in his second term?

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In a sense, the president’s hands are tied by the deficit, the lack of discretionary money, and the terms and conditions that compromise will impose on any education investment strategy.  Yet the president has the opportunity to turn a two-term limit into a seminal moment in history.  He is now free to be fearless.

So, here are a few thoughts on higher education, Mr. President.   

To use a variation of your own words:  “Say what you mean, and do what you say.”  If education is the cornerstone to an investment strategy in a knowledge-driven economy, make it happen.

Look to traditional state and federal resources, your bully pulpit, and the need for overall accountability but don’t expend political capital on bean counting, price controls, obstructive program reviews and fights over whether the US Department of Education should exist.

Embrace higher education as a partner because it trains the work force and is essential to the national defense.  Cut through the weeds to find the point of the exercise.  Always focus on the student.

We need to face the fact that America has a rich tradition of decentralized, competing higher education sectors.  Let the market take care of the competition among the sectors.

Further, watch the market dictate price. Consumers will vote with their feet.  The higher education community will respond accordingly.

But in your second term ask yourself a much more fundamental question. What do students need to get through the system?  The answers might surprise you:

First, encourage and support programs that put students on a pathway that is intentional and focused.  Support programs that provide counseling and mentorship to guide students through their educational life cycles into the workforce that take you beyond the invaluable role that community colleges play.  Admission to a community college opens doors, and for many, provides professional credentials to gain employment.

However, millions of American students seek jobs that require four-year degrees in a knowledge-based economy.  It’s essential but not enough for you to open the door.  You have a responsibility to walk students along a pathway that leads to employment, especially as the great recession slowly winds down in your second term.

Second, recognize that employers want graduates who can think. Graduates demonstrate their ability to think by showing that they can speak, work cooperatively, write, apply quantitative methods, and use technology.  These are the traits of a liberal arts education.  They are the foundation upon which professional degrees are granted.

From your bully pulpit, speak to these truths because you know that engineers who can’t write will not make America competitive.  If you craft your language carefully, much of consumer carping and crankiness among media pundits over the value of liberal arts training will diminish.  Why?  It is precisely these traits that employers need in a 21st century workforce.

Third, stand back and let the higher education community fight an unnecessary battle over credentials vs. degrees.  For your part, support programs that use technology to bridge the gap between how students learn and how they are taught.  Technology – used correctly – can inform good pedagogy.

The American higher education system of the 21st Century is likely to be a hybrid between traditional teaching methods, technology-based instruction, and the unknown.  Spend your political capital brokering the best ideas, and encourage innovation, consortium-based efficiencies, economies of scale and a better relationship between colleges and universities and for-profit providers.   

Fourth, use immigration reform to sharpen American higher education’s role in the global economy.  It is possible, even likely, that the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates may be a foreign national studying initially at one of America’s community colleges.

Use immigration reform to encourage more students to study in America.  Make it possible for them to stay when they graduate.  America’s colleges will become more global, preserve their dominance in education worldwide, and find new admission groups and additional sources of tuition revenue without the infusion of a single tax dollar.  How much did America gain in intellectual capital that translated to a technology advantage from foreign students studying in American colleges in the 20th century?

None of these changes require huge capital investment. Yet all allow the federal government to “get in the game.”  As deficit reduction affects discretionary federal spending, the fact is that federal spending can be as much about the use of political capital, facilitation skills, progressive policy reform, and supporting students through modest investments as about huge new federal education programs.

To connect the dots, good federal policy should use the full range of capital at its disposal.  If there is one lesson learned on November 6th, it is that government must work better.

Government needs cooperative and innovative partners to meet the needs of its citizens.  Higher education stands ready to help but how you choose and approach the topic, who you bring to the table, how you develop the agenda, and what expectations you place on those present will determine what gets done.

Today America ranks 12th among 36 developed nations in the percentage of the population with a college degree.  It’s unsustainable if we are to remain what Governor Romney called “the hope of the world.”  In the end, how we handle higher education will determine whether it really was all about hope and change.