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Education Reform: Why a Bachelor's Degree Still Matters

It would be truly unfortunate if twenty years from now we woke up to the realization that U.S. prominence in the world's economy had dropped even farther from where it stood today, because we made the mistake of shortchanging our educational systems.
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This is the third installment in a three-part series on the need for education reform in the United States. The first installment, "Doubling-Down on Dumb: The GOP War on Being Smart," explored the emerging political discourse criticizing public education and being well-educated, and how the toxic environment it creates makes real reform even more problematic. The second installment, "We Need an Education System that Promotes Creativity, Innovation, and Critical Thinking," argues in favor of a paradigm shift in primary and secondary education, away from an over-reliance on rote learning and standardized testing.

"For cities to have sustained success, they must compete for the grand prize: intellectual capital and talent." New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

"Cities must be cool, creative, and in control," Financial Times, March 27, 2012.

Assuming, as was argued in the second installment in this series, that the U.S. reforms its public education system and our high schools are graduating students who are creative, innovative, and critical thinkers, then college becomes the first opportunity where these capabilities can be applied on a much larger, and more-challenging, scale. One of the many benefits of attending college -- and, to a somewhat lesser extent, a two-year community college (because of its narrower geographic market area) -- is that the universe of students, and their respective life and academic experiences and attendant perspectives, are greatly expanded. The student body at a college with 2,500 students or a university with 25,000 students, respectively, will be exponentially less homogenous than a student's high school graduating class of 250, all coming from the same community.

Moreover, the teaching talents and credentials of the faculty at the college level offer additional intellectual challenges. Anecdotally, when I attended Georgetown University as an undergrad, my philosophy professor, Wilfrid Desan, was an internationally recognized expert on Jean Paul Sartre and Existentialism, and authored the pioneering, three-volume work The Planetary Man. My political philosophy professor, Jose Sorzano, went on to become ambassador and U.S. Deputy to the United Nations, serving with U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, also a Georgetown government professor during my matriculation. Such distinguished faculty is not, of course, limited to private universities. But regardless of how good a high school may be it is highly unlikely the faculty will include such luminaries.

And finally, the college environment will most likely be the last place where a person can truly enjoy learning for learning's sake, taking intellectual risks along the way that might otherwise be thought to be "career-ending" if exercised freely in a traditional workplace. As Sir Ken Robinson points out in Out of Our Minds, it is only in an environment where people are free to make mistakes that creativity and innovation truly flourish.

Teaching for creativity aims to encourage self-confidence, independence of mind, and the capacity to think for oneself. In teaching for creativity, teachers aim to:

promote experiment and inquiry and a willingness to make mistakes,
encourage generative thought, free from immediate criticism,
• encourage the expression of personal ideas and feelings,
• convey an understanding of phases in creative work and the need for time,
• develop an awareness of the roles of intuition and aesthetic processes,
encourage students to play with ideas and conjecture about possibilities, and
• facilitate critical evaluation of ideas.

The aim is to enable students to be more effective in handling future problems and objectives; to deepen and broaden awareness of the self as well as the world; and to encourage openness to new ideas.

Robinson, Ken (2011-06-28). Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative (pp. 270-271). Capstone. Kindle Edition. [Emphasis added.]

Very few work environments encourage such risk-taking behavior, despite the fact that numerous studies have shown that it is exactly such an environment where the best solutions are forged (with a nod to management guru Tom Peter's "do it, try it, fix it" principal). More often than not, in the working world making a mistake is often the last thing an employee does before being shown the door.

Regrettably, in these tough economic times, there is little chance of gaining much traction for the idealistic notion of "education for education's sake" without dovetailing that noble concept with the windfall benefits for economic recovery. Returning, then, to Mayor Bloomberg's Financial Times op-ed from last week regarding how cities compete in a global marketplace, the mayor wrote:

I have long believed that talent attracts capital far more effectively and consistently than capital attracts talent. The most creative individuals want to live in places that protect personal freedoms, prize diversity and offer an abundance of cultural opportunities. A city that wants to attract creators must offer a fertile breeding ground for new ideas and innovations. [Emphasis added.]

In an essay published in the monthly journal of the Urban Land Institute almost ten years ago entitled "Matriculation Reloaded: University town centers can fuel local economies" (Urban Land, October 2003), I wrote:

In a knowledge-based economy, colleges and universities will be the factories of the 21st century. They are the primary source of "knowledge workers" -- the smart, creative, and skilled people forming the foundation of successful companies. [Emphasis added.]

This statement is even more relevant today than when I wrote it almost ten years ago. The only things that have changed are 1) the extent to which these domestically produced knowledge workers will remain in the United States, thereby contributing to its economic resurgence, versus being attracted to better opportunities overseas, and 2) whether recent college and university grads, in the current economic climate, can find meaningful, remunerative career paths in the U.S. To the extent that these "career paths" include using their creativity, innovation, and knowledge as the impetus for start-up companies, rather than merely going to work for someone else, the country's college graduates could be at the forefront of leading the U.S.'s economic resurgence.

Our current economic hardships notwithstanding, the correlation between a student's level of educational attainment and lifetime earning potential has never been greater. This runs contrary to the emerging criticism that the value of a four-year bachelor's degree has become somewhat diluted in the marketplace by graduate degrees becoming the "entry level degree" for some careers. In a 2002 Special Studies report by the U.S. Census Bureau entitled "The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and Synthetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings" researchers Jennifer Cheeseman Day and Eric C. Newberger concluded:

Adults ages 25 to 64 who worked at any time during the study period earned an average of $34,700 per year. Average earnings ranged from $18,900 for high school dropouts to $25,900 for high school graduates, $45,400 for college graduates, and $99,300 for workers with professional degrees (M.D., J.D., D.D.S., or D.V.M.). [W]ith the exception of workers with professional degrees who have the highest average earnings, each successively higher education level is associated with an increase in earnings.

To further make the economic case for the importance of higher education in the domestic competitiveness of the United States in a global marketplace, the scholarly research and prolific writings of Dr. Richard Florida are illuminating, to say the least. Dr. Florida is perhaps best known for his first book, The Rise of the Creative Class (Basic Books, 2000), in which he argues that those cities in the United States that attracted and retained "creatives" would fare the best economically in the domestic economy. In The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent (HarperCollins, 2005), Dr. Florida extended to the global economy his analytical approach to regional competition for "Creatives" and their economic output.

As one might expect, the role of higher education figures prominently in Dr. Florida's work. However, his sophisticated research and analysis into what makes a particular city "sticky" in terms of attracting and retaining Creatives is truly multi-faceted, addressing everything from competing cities' arts and music scenes, to opportunities for active recreation, to correlating his research with that of Carnegie Mellon colleague Gary Gates and his "Gay Index." However, there is no escaping the fact that without a strong system of higher education in the U.S., we would have an incredibly weak "Creative Economy."

In this sense, universities and colleges don't serve just the economic winners of the creative age. They represent the key building blocks that cities such as Cleveland, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh can use to rebuild. Kevin Stolarick, and our research team have also found that the "higher education -- knowledge -- learning cluster" is always among the top employers of both creative class workers and service-sector workers in major U.S. regions. I was once asked what I thought might be one of the keys to saving Detroit's economy. My answer was simple: Ann Arbor... that the future of the Detroit region in the creative age lies more with the technology, talent, and tolerance engine that is Ann Arbor than in stadiums and a refurbished Renaissance center in downtown Detroit.

Flight of the Creative Class, page 252.

On Friday, March 28th, Dr. Florida posted "Why Some Cities Lose When Others Win" on The Atlantic Cities Online, which is also directly on point. In that blog entry Dr. Florida argues that the competition for intellectual capital will define the success of the world's -- and not just the U.S.'s -- greatest cities.

In 1950, the world's largest urban areas were New York and London, both with more than 12 million people, followed by Tokyo (8.4 million), Moscow (7 million), Rhine-Ruhr (6.9 million), Paris (6.7 million), Shanghai (5.8 million), Chicago (5.6 million), Buenos Aires (4.6 million), and Calcutta (4.6 million).

By the mid-2000s, the ranking had changed substantially. Cities in emerging economies dominated the list of the world's largest urban areas. Tokyo topped the list with more than 35 million people, followed by Mexico City and Mumbai with roughly 20 million each. Meanwhile, New York had dropped to fourth, followed by Sao Paulo, Delhi, Calcutta, Jakarta, Buenos Aires, and Dhaka. Los Angeles was 12th, Paris 22nd, Chicago 25th, and London 28th. [Emphasis added.]

Obviously, if cities like Tokyo, Mumbai, and Shanghai continue to figure prominently among the world's largest -- and most-economically successful -- urban areas, chances are that manufacturing and service companies in their respective spheres of influence (i.e. primarily in Asia) will prosper as a result, and the U.S. will see little, if any, economic benefit from such growth. If, however, U.S. cities such as New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston, as well as second-tier cities such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and St. Louis, are successful in attracting and retaining Creatives regardless of their respective countries of origin, then the domestic economy will benefit from the U.S.'s collective aggregation of global, intellectual capital.

It is regrettable, at best, that at a time when the U.S. should be making an even-greater investment in higher education -- as well as in primary and secondary education -- so that we might compete much more aggressively for Creatives on a global scale, local and state governments, as well as the federal government, are succumbing to short-sighted pressures to cut education spending as a means of balancing budgets and reducing government debt. It would be truly unfortunate (but it is not even close to being outside the realm of the possible) if twenty years from now we woke up to the realization that the U.S. prominence in the world's economy had dropped even farther from where it stood today, because we made the mistake of shortchanging our educational systems at precisely the time when we needed to do the exact opposite.

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