Rewarding Education

America has always recognized the link between education and economic success--from the mandate for free public education in the Northwest Ordinance through Lincoln's support for the Morrill Land Grant College Act to the GI Bill of Rights legislation after World War II. In each of these previous civic eras, governments at all levels have invested heavily in education based on the belief that these expenditures would return much more in the future earnings capacity of its citizenry than the short term costs incurred. Now new research indicates the best way to bring good jobs and rising wages  to our newest civic generation, Millennials, is by breaking down the barriers to post-secondary educational success.

According to a recent study by Louis Jacobson and Christine Mokher, "Pathways to Boosting the Earnings of Low Income Students by Increasing their Educational Attainment,"  the key to future earnings potential is COMPLETION of whatever course of study is undertaken. "Course for course the returns to community colleges and four year college attendance  are comparable. However students who complete a community college credential tend to have higher earnings than four-year college students who do not graduate." Those who earned an associate degree at a community college earned 27% more than those who failed to get a degree of any kind and those with a certificate, even if for only one year of post high school education, still earned on average 8% more a year than those who failed to complete their higher education studies.  

The two major obstacles to postsecondary success identified in the study were the need to finance education and living expenses  by working while attending school and the lack of adequate preparation in academic subjects such as math and science while in high school.  Given the documented importance of completing a post-secondary field of study, the report's identification of these two principal  barriers to students finishing what they start gives policy makers a clear path to improve both educational attainment and the acquisition of good jobs with decent salaries and benefits for Millennials.

Financing Post-secondary Education

The Jacobson and Mokher study found that in 2007-2008  just about every one of the lowest income students attending community colleges was in debt, with an average of $7,147 in unmet expenses after taking into account all the grants or scholarships they received.  Student per class tuition rates are even higher at private one or  two year "career colleges," which enroll only about 10% of the number of students that attend government subsidized community colleges.  As a result, three-fourths of associate degree or certificate seekers end up working to help cover their educational and living expenses. The burden of needing to work is a major reason why only 26% of community college students get a degree or certificate within three years of starting their studies and only 38% get their  degree within  six years.   

Meanwhile federal support for higher education has failed to keep up with rising costs so that more and more students find themselves financing their education with student loans of one type or another. In Indiana, for instance, 62 percent of those who do manage to graduate carry student loan debt averaging  $23,264 per student. The loan burden in that state is even higher for graduates of for-profit colleges who leave school with  an average  debt burden of $32,650.

In addition to the steps Democrats  have already taken to increase the maximum amount available from Pell Grants and  the value of tax deductions for parents able to afford to pay their child's  tuition,  Congress should  follow the President's lead in addressing this debilitating burden on students who are required  to finance their education while attending school. One important step would be to increase support for community colleges along the lines advocated by NDN. Congress should also  eliminate the current subsidy to banks that  provide risk free  private student loans guaranteed by the government and redirect the money saved to expanding the federal loan program that allows students to borrow directly, at lower costs, from the government. This Obama Administration initiative was part of the student loan reform bill the House passed last year, but it  appears to be stymied in the Senate with sponsors hard to come by. Finally, whatever entity is eventually charged with protecting consumers from deceptive marketing of loans and other credit instruments as part of reforming our nation's financial regulatory structure, should also be given oversight of the student loan market  and the power to  set strong rules for fairer private student loan marketing and terms.

Fixing our nation's high schools

Among the brightest success stories of the Obama Administration are its educational reform policies under the leadership of Secretary of Education, Arnie Duncan. Its Race to the Top grant program designed to reward performance is already having transformative impact on educational policy in many states even as the program's first grants are awarded.  Focused on providing more money  to schools that are turning out students able and willing to learn, this program should be expanded in line with the administration's budget requests and supported by Democrats at all levels of government, from school districts to state legislatures. Now its time to bring the Gen X parents of Millennial students into the game as well and get them engaged in making sure their kids get the education they will need to succeed when they graduate from high school.

Already successful charter schools, such as UPrep in Detroit,  have demonstrated that any child of any background can graduate from high school and get accepted into a post-secondary educational experience if provided with the right learning environment, one that sets expectations of success right from the start. Bringing parents into the process of establishing such learning environments,  as California's recent "parent trigger" legislation does, represents the cutting edge of educational reform in this Millennial Era.

As Neil Howe, co-author of Generations, wrote in the most recent edition of School Administrator magazine, "when these Gen-X "security moms" and "committed dads" are fully roused, they can be even more attached, protective and interventionist than Boomer [parents]  ever were. . .They will juggle schedules to monitor their kids' activities in person. . . [and] will quickly switch their kids into - or take them out of - any situation according to their assessment of their youngsters' interests."  Congress could take a big step toward improving   America's high schools by empowering these Gen-X "stealth-fighter parents"  to take over failing schools as part of the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law.  Howe writes that  "Gen Xers believe their children's education should be a fair and open transaction with complete and accurate information and unconstrained consumer choice" and Congress should use its funding leverage to give them just what they are looking for. 

Winning  the hearts and minds of both Millennials and their parents is an achievable political goal for Democrats. Furthermore, as the latest research reveals, knocking down the barriers to obtaining a certificate or degree after high school is the key to economic success for both students and the country, making  the idea good public policy as well as good politics. Making higher education more affordable and fixing our nation's high schools should be at the top of Democrats economic policy priorities now and throughout the decade ahead.