January 29, 2021

Education’s Role in Rebuilding the American Dream

A woman with a brown ponytail holds an American flag above her head, symbolizing education’s role in rebuilding the American dream.

By: Michael Hansen, Chief Executive Officer, Cengage

A new president can often bring new hope and promise for the days ahead. While last week’s inauguration has shifted the headlines away from much of the chaos, outrage and condemnation associated with the events of January 6th, we must ensure that as a country, we still take a moment to pause, reflect and ask the hard questions – particularly when it comes to what these events might indicate about what comes next.

As a passionate student of history, an immigrant to this country from post-war Germany, a business leader and someone deeply invested in education, my reasoned judgment is that the root causes are poorly understood and thus, remedies are likely to fall short.

Globalization and technological progress have brought better living standards to millions of people in the western world. Yet, when it comes to finding meaning in fulfilling jobs and progress through careers, a large portion of the US population feels left behind. 

One of the core reasons is that the education system in the US is broken. Institutions are more focused on financial pressures than on the career readiness of enrolled students. Education in the US is expensive for the students, hard to access and has failed to properly equip students with the necessary skills to be successful in the jobs that are currently in high demand. This left many with a sense that the American dream is no longer in their reach, and caused them to look for answers to this void. 

The fringe of the Democratic and Republican parties were willing to jump on this opportunity to court voters. The promise was either a redistribution of wealth or a turning back of the effects of globalization and technology through a focus on nationalism. The charismatic and unusual candidacy of Donald Trump won the first leg of this race to provide answers for the disenfranchised. 

But almost more importantly, the factions catering to disenfranchised voters – assisted by social and traditional media – redefined what ‘facts’ mean, what role science should have in the decision-making process and by extension, which institutions can be relied on to properly analyze these facts and render an opinion. As a result, the very foundation of any societal decision-making process has been shaken to the core. Trump supporters don't just believe in different points of view, they believe in different facts than the supporters of Bernie Sanders and AOC. 

The only path to rebuild the foundation is education. Critical thinking, research to establish the credibility of a source and the painfully slow process of evaluating all facets and coming to a reasoned conclusion. Much in the environment is stacked against this as well: 24/7 bombardment with opinion disguised as ‘information’, the COVID-induced isolation from human interaction, the demise of investigative journalism, the slow corrosive hollowing out of all institutions of trust – FBI, CDC, the courts – the list goes on and on. Most of them have been deliberately or accidentally undermined by the political discourse over the last 10+ years. 

So, against many odds, all Americans have a decision to make. Will we embark on the painful and slow process to rebuild our country or let it fall onto the ash heap of history as all the great powers before us have done? I am an eternal optimist and I rest this optimism on the generation of my children. They have what it takes to see the need for a better education system and do something about it. They will need our coaching, counsel and advice to shape their and our future as the greatest social experiment in recent history. 

As an optimist, I believe that education transforms lives. But we must do the work to fix the broken system. That work starts with accessibility and affordability. A quality education should be readily available for all who seek it to enrich their lives and achieve their dreams. To improve access for all, we must equally share the cost burden of a quality education and ensure that all players in the system are held equally accountable to deliver the student success and career readiness needed post-education.

The most radical idea would be to make college free (or minimal cost) to students and funded through taxpayers. With that said, free college should not equate to a lower quality experience. Second, employers need to take seriously the availability and viability of micro-credentials, degrees, badges and certifications, in place of traditional two- and four-year degree programs. Four years of college is not for everyone and we need to provide equal amounts of financial support and employer acceptance for alternatives. Finally, we need to leverage the power of technology to augment the learning experience and enable students to have a higher quality learning experience that sets them up for career or work-readiness. It will also allow us to better connect the content that is taught in the classroom to the requirements of the workplace. Transparency and metrics that are anchored in the job market will help the system focus on the right actions. 

Today only 30-40 percent of higher education students in the US have access to digital experiences as part of their coursework. We need to set ambitious goals to ensure all students have access to quality digital learning experiences. And most importantly we need to hold institutions, faculty and all providers accountable. Degrees without jobs are not very useful and very expensive. 

Until we work together to fix the country’s broken education system, we can expect that any ad-hoc solution – whether from the Democrats, Republicans, or even a bipartisan coalition – will not solve the problem that America faces today. As a parent, I have hope that future generations do not experience the anger, despair and sadness of feeling left behind that has been so apparent in these last few months.