A National Imperative: 5 Ways America Can Succeed in the New Knowledge Economy

As we address issues of American competitiveness, we need to widen our lens and think differently about the education of the American workforce -- particularly of non-traditional students, like working adults.
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As our nation deals with domestic and global economic and political turmoil, we must identify and remember indicators of America's hope and strength. One hopeful indicator for me is the number of people entering our higher education systems this fall. They begin the academic year with optimism, hope, and determination. Their determination must translate into learning, persistence, graduation and successful employment for all students if we, as a nation, are to achieve President Obama's goal of increasing the education level of our national workforce.

The president has laid out a national challenge to graduate 10 million more Americans by 2020 than we are currently on track to achieve. This is the right goal, but it comes at a time when traditional institutions of higher education are under increasing stress to provide additional capacity with fewer resources. It is unrealistic to think we will solve our challenges by simply pulling 10 million more 18- to 22-year olds through the current system. As we address issues of American competitiveness, we need to widen our lens and think differently about the education of the American workforce.

The Lumina Foundation tells us that there are 37 million Americans who have attended college without receiving a degree or credential. This population represents both a significant challenge and opportunity. As unemployment and underemployment remain intractably high, we face a critical challenge of matching jobs to skills in the American workforce. The Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor statistics tell us that the U.S. has suffered a net loss of 500,000 jobs among people with a high school diploma or less, but we have seen a net gain of 1.2 million jobs for college graduates. That is an amazing statistic that speaks to the fundamental shift in our economy. This shift has left employers hungry for skilled workers and under-educated workers starving for jobs.

To grow jobs in a knowledge economy we have to grow the skills of all of our workers. That's why educational programs provide affordable, accessible and convenient high-quality online education for working adults are so important. (At my institution, Capella University, the average student is a 39-year-old woman seeking a post-graduate degree.) Working adults face the challenge of balancing work, family and education in order to succeed. And succeed they must - for their own good as well as that of our national welfare.

In order to meet this urgent national imperative, both America's public and private sectors will need to change the way we are doing business. The following five areas of focus are a good place to begin:

1. We need to lower the barriers of entry into higher education for working adults. This means public policy that provides resources for working adults to return to school and lowers barriers to degree completion.

2. We need greater integration between the skills needed by private sector employers and the educational institutions that provide those skills.

3. We need public policy that encourages broad-scale innovation in higher education and private sector risk-taking to increase efficiency and drive down costs.

4. We need regulators and accreditors to support, rather than restrict, innovation with the goal of increasing our institutional graduation and success rates by valuing outcomes over traditional inputs. For example, defining quality in terms of demonstrated learning and career outcomes rather than inputs (credit hours based on "seat time" or institutional "residency" requirements) would align our institutions with the national imperative of educating our adult workforce effectively and affordably.

5. We need a game-changing focus on outcomes assessment and measurements across all of higher education and we need to hold schools accountable for whether or not their students learn and attain skills that can be translated into the American workforce. For example, accreditors could consider a tiered approach to accreditation with increased transparency regarding learning and career outcomes earning institutions a higher accreditation "rating".

Increasing our national focus on the education of adult workers will not be inexpensive and pushing against the status quo will not be easy, but the cost of not doing so will far outweigh the costs of action. At Capella University, we know we don't have all the answers, but we understand the urgent issues facing us. We have seen the triumph of adult learners who have enhanced their opportunities in life by expanding their education. Educating our adult workforce is more than a heartwarming story; it is a national imperative.

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