The Higher Education Dilemma

Alex Tabarrok, author of the excellent manifesto Launching the Innovation Renaissance, wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the higher education dilemma that we now face.  We don't graudate enough high school students (25% of high schoolers never get their diploma), those that do graduate often end up in programs with little spill-over benefits to  the economy, and college ends up being a waste of time and money for those students that make it.

As America has grown in wealth, an increasing number of students have chosen to explore the social sciences over the so-caled STEM field of science, technology, engineering, and math.  Not that there's anything wrong with the social sciences (speaking as an internaitonal relations major myself), but we must be cognizent of the impact of these educational choices and what areas of eudcation we are choosing to subsidize directly and indirectly.  Investing in STEM fields often yeilds gains that are felt across society and past geographic bounds.  We are filling the ranks of the creative class while emptying our labs of America's brightest minds. Studying in the STEM fields isn't for everyone, that's for sure.  Neither is college.  We pour vast sums of money into our colleges, and yet America still has the highest college dropout of any industrialized country.  Vocational programs that focus on skills-based education are often ignored. Before looking for institutional problems, Tabarrok rightfully steps back and questions our assumptions about education:

A big part of the problem is that the United States has paved a single road to knowledge, the road through the classroom. "Sit down, stay quiet, and absorb. Do this for 12 to 16 years," we tell the students, "and all will be well." Lots of students, however, crash before they reach the end of the road. Who can blame them? Sit-down learning is not for everyone, perhaps not even for most people. There are many roads to an education.

There's much to learn from Europe, in fact.  Many employers there work closely with colleges to craft an education that is relevant and useful for the jobs that they have open.  Moreoever, they offer a range of apprenticeship programs where those of high school age are "given high-skill technical training that combines theory with practice."  If students choose to go to college, you're more likely to find (especially in the UK) a style of education based more on dialogue and debate rather than rote learning.  The upside is a more individualized focus on students, who in turn end up being more broadly engaged and conversant with the knowledge and skills necessary for the 21st century economy. America is a diverse and complex country.  Why not have an education system that reflects that?  As Tabarrok concludes, "We need to open more roads to education so that more students can reach their desired destination."