Reconsidering Our Education Model

Having a generalized set of skills can be an advantage if you’re an entrepreneur, a free agent, or someone who has already become fully immersed in the new economy of the 21st century. While colleges are abandoning liberal arts majors in droves in favor of specialization, the inherent value of what higher education offers is also coming under increased scrutiny by some.

What are these “general” skills that I speak of? Is there a core toolkit of skills that someone looking to make it as a free agent should have? What are the skills that I’ve been able to cobble together and master, or at least become proficient at many over the past 10 years?

The past decade has been a unique period of personal reinvention. I essentially created my own personal curriculum and a learning environment that is very much aligned with all things DIY. What continues to amaze me is how prescient this approach was when I embarked on it back in 2002, while working at a dead-end corporate, cubicle job. I also know that a self-directed approach like mine won’t work for everyone.

Considering my experiences and journey, however, makes me acutely aware how beholden we are to the old ways, a holdover from a former time when good jobs, paying living wages and providing pensions, were abundant. I would argue that many of these former ways are an albatross and a hindrance to success. The ways of the free agent and the economic realities of the 21st century call us to be nimble and able to turn on a dime. Tragically, many are like the frog in the pot, and don’t realize the gravity of holding onto this outdated workforce approach.

American education, especially the current higher ed model, has undergone what I consider an ossification. The accepted narrative continues to posit the value of a four-year education at a bricks and mortar institution, often costing upwards of $50,000/year at elite schools. At the same time, data demonstrates that this perceived value be called into question. Others are making a strong case for an alternative approach to the traditional four-year program.

Will these graduates land jobs that justify the cost of their education?

Will these graduates land jobs that justify the cost of their education?

The economic malaise of the Great Recession, which began in 2007, has been leveraged by the education-industrial complex crowd to move in a much more specialized direction with majors considered part of what were liberal arts courses being slashed, and shifting to a more specialized approach.  In my opinion, this is not the approach higher ed should be taking.

If college exists to prepare students for a job—which seems to be the accepted wisdom of a college education today—then on the surface, this approach makes sense. More college equals a better job, and the more it costs coming with the belief that it will deliver a job that pays better than others. That’s not the case at all, however. If we knew exactly what the jobs picture was going to look like five years, 10 years, or 20 years from now, then I’d be willing to cede credibility, at least some, to that argument. However, we don’t know with any certainty and economic forecasting has become much more art than science over the past 20 years. Compounding this lack of certainty is the escalation of college costs. Students from middle-class homes whose parents can’t write a $50,000 check each year are graduating with a four-year degree and are leaving school with a six-figure debt load. It’s also becoming clear from jobs data that more and college grads are landing in part-time jobs. Debt and lack of income are certain deal breakers for anyone hoping to become a member of the American middle-class.

What if we prepared our high school students with basic skills as a foundation, and then offered more affordable training beyond the K-12 system when we knew what jobs were available? Having a workforce prepared for the jobs that are in need of being filled, particularly jobs that offer access to a middle-class standard of living benefits all Americans, offering the chance for better outcomes than our current way of doing things.

Given that the American economy has become a skills-intensive one, with the need for a basic core set of skills and then, the position being hired for dictating the need for specialized training, why commit to four-years of college if a two year core curriculum will prepare you just as well? Someone benefits from you signing up for four years, and we’re increasingly seeing that it’s not the student.

Given that jobs are requiring greater sophistication than in the past, along with a large subsection of America’s workforce mired in what I call the low wage/low skill “ghetto,” then it’s not surprising to me that the discussion continues to resonate with the topic of there being a “skills gap.” Adding to the conundrum is the removal of the  incentive to work from jobs paying a wage well below what would be considered a livable wage, and you create some major challenges to fill existing jobs, as well as moving people beyond the subsistence of public assistance and programs like TANF, into employment that will support families and add workers to the tax rolls.

There seems to be a serious disconnect between the current model of preparing students with the skills required, and the jobs that are available if those students had the requisite skills. Our current model needs a major makeover because we’re pricing our future workforce right out of the market and not prepping them to be employable. There’s also the issue of college loans, which is well-documented by Matt Taibbi in a recent Rolling Stone article.

One way out of this predicament, and a solution that offers an affordable alternative to the education-industrial complex, is the development and availability of programs leading to post-secondary certificates. This is a solution that’s being championed by people like Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. I heard Carnavale talk about this at a higher-ed symposium a couple of years ago. He also happens to be a graduate of Thornton Academy, the alma mater of my late father-in-law, Joe Tarazewich. Like Joe, Carnevale knows his stuff, especially when it comes to workforce development and training.

I have been advocating for and up until a year ago, had been part of a group of partners and other community leaders leading the push for a foundational skills education, which provides the core set of middle-skills supported by the likes of Carnevale, and Jamie Merisotis, CEO of the Lumina Foundation. Lumina was one of the funders of this groundbreaking report that Carnevale was one of the authors, in 2010. The WorkReady program, one that I was active in building capacity for, was developed to provide some of these basic, soft skills and is a perfect foundation for the certificate-based training beyond K-12 that Carnevale and others are advocating.

I’m following the progress of a bill in the Maine Legislature with a great deal of interest. LD 90 is a bill that looks at Maine’s workforce challenges, and is making an attempt at taking a strategic approach to addressing some of the challenges Maine is facing. Of course, our workforce has some structural disadvantages built-in, namely our aging population. Policy advisors have offered other strategies that I believe also must be adopted.

I’m anxious to see what happens with this legislation that seeks to create new degree programs in high-demand fields, as well as expand existing education programs. It also created a scholarship fund for post-secondary degree programs, enacted a more seamless credit transfer system and restores funding for the Maine Apprenticeship Program. Additionally, soft skills are on the radar of many in the 126th Maine Legislature, especially among Democrats, but also some forward-looking Republicans, too. I think it’s a step in an important direction, and addresses Maine’s workforce challenges, focusing on important initiatives that Maine’s future economic success requires. As they say, however, “the devil’s in the details.” I hope it’s not just another cover job for maintaining the tired status quo.

One last point. We need to stop telling our high school seniors that the only hope for career success is acquiring a four-year degree and $100,000 in debt. Merely pushing kids to embrace a model might look good on high school’s graduation stats, but damning them to a lifetime of debt and low wages does not constitute career guidance, or preparation for life.

I’d also recommend watching this clip from August 23, when Taibbi, Anya Kamenetz, and Robert Kelchen were on with Chris Hayes, talking about the soaring cost of a college education and the perceived value. Start watching at 02:49.


Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

5 thoughts on “Reconsidering Our Education Model

  1. On your recommendation, I picked up The Baffler magazine and read Thomas Frank’s “Academy Fight Song.” While Frank and I might disagree on solutions, his premise was correct. He says “the higher education mantra is possibly the greatest cliche in American public life.”

    From student loan servicing to the textbook purchasing, young Americans are tying themselves to a millstone of debt that cannot be forgiven through tragedy or bankruptcy. Who profits? Quoting Frank, “a class of professionals who have nothing to do with the pedagogical enterprise itself.” Correct. Minions who sit in cubicles and process paperwork to enslave young Americans to a lifetime of debt.

    Knowledge is important in and of itself. Luckily, its acquisition is possible through a variety of avenues and most of them free.

    Fight the power!

  2. Scanned this quickly today, Jim, as I have a full day ahead. Want to read more carefully and take a look at the links you have when day is done. Many of our college graduates in America the last several years are living in poverty with no medical insurance. And their parents, I know, have depleted their retirement savings and must continue to work past retirement to survive themselves. Let’s see what the Affordable Care Act has to offer come October 1 for insurance assistance for people including college grads.

  3. Funny, I was talking to an attorney I know, successful and probably five years older than us. He asked me if I knew that he had once gone for a teaching certificate in Illinois, and that he made it all the way until the final approval interview. There he was asked, What is the purpose of our educational system?

    He replied, “To make intelligent and responsible citizens to participate in our civic and electoral governments.”

    No, he was told. He tried again, “To make citizens capable of… ”

    No, he was told. They told him the correct answer: “To maintain the status quo.”

    The whole system of schooling is a devil’s bargain, but the devil’s pockets are turned inside out and he’s no longer able to make good on his side of the bargain. Do as we say, when we say; repeat what we tell you until you believe it; forsake your natural interests in life, in the beautiful, and just keep in line nodding at the distractions we send your way. In exchange, we will see to it that you are employed, fed, have a house, have health care, and generally live without a real care or anxiety until you die.

    It’s over. There will be no more easy rides on soma, and we will be forced to question, challenge, throw away and adapt or reinvent everything we thought we knew. Teachers, meanwhile, and our entire school system (school, like a school of fish, all turning instantly the same direction, whichever direction someone wants us trained to turn in) continue plodding on in the same direction, asserting that only by doing what they tell us can we have success by climbing in to the managerial class.

    The sooner our entire “educational” system crashes on the rocks and sinks, the better.

  4. Behind every dedicated blogger are tireless commenters who enhance what is written with their own pertinent thoughts on the topic.

    I think what each of you contributed reminds me that the education mess is tied to the financial mess, which is tied to the government mess, tied to the _______ mess (fill-in the blank), or at least, it seems like a systemic issue much larger than either one of us can possible affect on our own.

    I agree with @LP that the sooner these systems, propped up with capital extracted from you and me in the form of confiscatory taxation crashes, the better. However, when systems fail and long-held and cherished beliefs, even if their foundations rest on lies and propaganda, are dashed to pieces, something moves in to fill the void, and any associated vacuum of power that existed.

    As @JAB and I have discussed many times, while we both share the belief that solutions, if there are any, must focus on our little corner close to home, I worry that the community organizing (that’s not a dirty word, at least it isn’t when we’re not talking the Obama bait-and-switch usage of the word) required and needed now in our local places, is a skill that’s been dormant for too long in places like Lisbon Falls, Norway, Greenville, and even in Youngstown, Ohio and Gary, Indiana. How do we re-engage a populace around local matters when they’ve relied on some government “minion” to carry the water and offer pseudo-services and faux solutions?

    I think of your situation, @Sally, and our personal conversations. These are tough times, but I take solace in the friendships I’ve established with good people like you and others and believe that together, we can make a difference, and that it is in the coming together where the solutions and our way forward most likely resides.

    @Mark, being a “minion,” if that’s how you see yourself, isn’t necessarily bad. Being a minion, which I have been most of my life allows you some freedom, and you don’t have to think somehow that you’re responsible to lead a group of people that aren’t willing to support your efforts. You can just sit back, go to a few meetings, do your assigned tasks, and let someone else do the heavy lifting. Of course that model won’t work well and offer any improvement from the status quo in our small towns and other burgs that need reinvention and revitalization.

Comments are closed.