As part of the "Millennial Priorities for the First 100 Days" series, a recognition of the need to address student debt levels and unemployed graduates.
In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt was faced with a widespread catastrophe. The Depression had given birth to shattering rates of unemployment, bank failures, and a widespread loss of confidence in government. From the start, FDR knew that what the people needed most was reassurance that under his leadership, they could weather the storm. In his inaugural address on a gloomy March morning, FDR said, "This nation asks for action, and action now. Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require." Soon thereafter, he set a high standard for new presidents during his first 100 days, launching a raft of New Deal reforms over his first three months in office.
With a laundry list of issues and a divided congress, President Obama faces hurdles in acting and acting quickly. In the three months following his second inauguration ceremony, his actions need to provide the country with reassurance that this ship is moving in the right direction under his leadership. Perhaps his most important task will be addressing this through the lens of education policy.
Education has long been the primary driver of upward mobility in America, a fact that is truer now than ever before. Yet as the demands on schools to impart 21st century skills have increased, school quality has not kept pace across the country, resulting in an ever-widening achievement gap. Our primary and secondary schools are tested to death but provide little to no growth in our national education numbers. According to NPR’s Claudio Sanchez, “the class of 2012 scored the lowest average SAT reading scores since 1972” while also managing to take a nine-point dive in writing. The only area where we saw a national improvement was in math, where it stands only five points higher than 40 years ago. Overall, College Board, which commissions the SAT, reports that six in ten college students are not ready for college work. Students are now faced with the decision to enter college unprepared or not enter college at all. The ACT reported even more dismal numbers: only a quarter of the high schoolers who took the test were college ready.
What comes of those students who enter into college unprepared? According to Complete College America, about 41 percent of the high school graduates who enter college are required to take remedial courses when they start college. Even more alarming is that two-thirds of these students fail to earn their degree in six years, some accumulating unreasonably high amounts of college loan debt.
What happens to the students who pass on college altogether? Armed with a high school diploma and little to no marketable skills, these students all to often face unemployment.
Is graduating college in four years the remedy, as many proclaim? It helps, but many college students are unemployed as well. The common problem for all three sets of students is the lack of skills – a problem which has also become a crisis in America.
To expect President Obama and Sec. Duncan to address every aspect of the system as a whole within the first hundred days is unreasonable. We can, however, expect them to address the increasingly alarming student loan bubble and the skills crisis.
Since 1978, average college tuition has skyrocketed by over 900 percent, while grants and scholarships continue to be slashed and only given to a select group of students. The result? Students are forced to mortgage their futures with student loan debt. This, accompanied with dismal job numbers for college graduates, has many worried that graduates will default on their loans, causing the bubble to burst and result in seismic shocks through every facet of American life. It is paramount that this bubble be addressed by the national government or the effects could cripple the already fragile economy.
One way to address this would be to get more young people to work. This could be done by revitalizing our skills training across the nation and investing in current skills training organizations such as yearup. If the president uses this approach, he can simultaneously address the skills crisis and the student loan debt crisis. But this project is more complex than simply increasing funding. It would have to begin with a role change for many of the community colleges around the nation. This is not to call for them to become full-fledged technical schools, nor should they carry identical curriculums to that of four-year institutions. They should, however, increase the number of classes available for training local people in the skills they need to do the jobs available in the area around them. Since the budgets of many community colleges are strained already, President Obama could provide tax incentives to companies that send trained workers to teach classes at their surrounding community colleges. This is imperfect in many ways, but could very well work if the nuances are worked out.
President Obama has 100 days to reassure the people that his leadership will move this country in the right direction, just as FDR did in 1933. If he can solve the student loan debt bubble while addressing the skills crisis, he will send a solid signal to the American people that this country is really moving forward.
Joshua Mckinney is the Senior Fellow in Education Policy for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network and a political science and philosophy double major at Morehouse College.
Barack Obama image via Shutterstock.com.