Last week during his State of the Union, President Obama outlined an education agenda focused on pursuing “a country that leads the world in educating its people.” Two critical elements of this blueprint are to raise the compulsory education age to 18 and to improve the affordability of higher education through expanded student aid and other programs aimed at controlling costs. Underlying these proposals, of course, is a recognition that education is not only an essential question of justice and equality, but also one that is at the very heart of our national interest and economic well-being.
The Education Agenda begins 19 minutes into the State of the Union
First, President Obama has proposed that every state require all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18. This is critical for many students who are already disadvantaged and who stand to gain the most from educational opportunity. We know that students from low-income families are approximately 10 times more likely to drop out than their peers from high-income families and that high school completion is essential to employment, earnings, and many other lifetime outcomes. In fact, the difference between having a high school degree and dropping out is estimated at nearly $569,000 in earnings over the duration of one’s career. And if anything, the recession has only made this disparity even more acute since the majority of new jobs created in the current economic recovery require a high school or postsecondary degree while many of those eliminated by the recession did not.
However, in order to tackle this issue head-on, it is important that the proposed compulsory approach is complemented by stronger early warning systems to identify students who are at risk of dropping out along with greater support for those who are struggling. This should include an emphasis on college and career counseling, use of mentoring and tutoring, and utilization of alternative learning opportunities such as Early College High Schools. It’s important that these interventions happen early however – studies show, for example, that ninth grade can often be a “make or break year,” with performance and attendance during this pivotal time predicting up to 80 percent of the likelihood of a student graduating from high school.
Second, President Obama has proposed steps to increase student financial aid and to keep college costs under control. Details of this plan include increasing the amount of Perkins loan funding to $8 billion, creating a $1 billion “Race to The Top” for higher education, and forming a $55 million “First in the World” competition to increase productivity. With a postsecondary degree becoming more critical to attaining and maintaining middle class status, it is important that the President incentivize colleges to keep costs down and improve outcomes. However, it will also be necessary to ensure that students enter college prepared for success. In order to safeguard students from remedial classes, secondary schools must strengthen their college preparatory programs and align their curricula with postsecondary expectations. In addition, they will need to integrate social and non-cognitive skills into their curricula to help students persist in the face of obstacles and increase postsecondary retention and completion rates.
Of course, all the elements of President Obama’s education efforts will ultimately require state and congressional cooperation, but his speech was an important reminder to refocus our attention on increasing high school and postsecondary completion. It’s also a step closer to ensuring greater economic opportunities for those who need it most and whose success will be critical to the success of us all. In the end it’s something that we should all be able to get behind, an approach that’s consistent with America’s values and certainly our best interest.