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Merisotis: A Stronger America Will Need to Be a More Talented America

The economy, unemployment and the American dream. Those are a few of the big issues facing our nation as President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney prepare for their first debate. And they’re all related. That’s because the nation’s economic future is inextricably linked to the talent of its workforce, which in turn will drive our collective fiscal and social well being.

When they take the stage, both candidates will need to explain what policymakers, employers and institutions need to do more to produce the skilled talent our country needs to grow jobs and improve the earning power of more Americans.

The task is urgent because we already face enormous hurdles. Research shows that more than 60 percent of American jobs will require some form of education beyond high school by 2018. Yet today, less than 40 percent of U.S. adults have a postsecondary degree. Adding insult to injury: We now rank 13th in the world when it comes to the college-attainment level of our young adults, a long fall from where we were just a decade ago. The impending reality is that we will increasingly lose jobs of the future to our global competitors if we fail to address this issue head on.

Unfortunately, political will is lacking when it comes to tackling the thorny matters of college affordability, productivity, funding and more. Most of the big public policy issues, such as student loan interest rates, have been kicked down the road politically with short-term fixes.

Instead, it’s become far too common for people to question the value of higher education and its role in our future. And that is a slippery slope because data overwhelmingly show that postsecondary degrees and certificate attainment hold tremendous promise for our country and our citizens.

A recent study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce makes absolutely clear the advantage educated workers had during – and coming out of – the Great Recession that began in December 2007.

Nearly 80 percent of the jobs lost during the recession were held by workers with a high school diploma or less, and those workers have continued to lose jobs during the weak recovery that began in 2010. And in the past two years, 1.6 million jobs were added to the U.S. economy for people with associate degrees, and an additional 2.2 million were added for those with bachelor’s degrees. During that same period, people with a high school diploma or less lost 230,000 jobs.

Stated plainly, Americans with only a high school education or less will have great difficulty finding and keeping middle-income jobs in the new economy. Without the skills that can be acquired through postsecondary education, many of these Americans who previously were able to be a part of the middle class will be relegated to the ranks of our nation’s poor.

So, how should we go about building a better path for student access and success? It’s time for a redesign of the postsecondary system and how we fund it.

We need policymakers and institutions to tackle the issue of college affordability by setting clear parameters on what institutions can charge students and for what. We need to stop worrying so much about where students went to school and focus much more on what they know and can do with their degrees. We need to be explicit about better serving the ever-growing number of low-income, first-generation, minority and adult students across America – because they will make up the bulk of our future workforce.

Federal policymakers also will need to take some lessons from what is happening in the states. More and more are adopting performance-based funding models that reward institutions not for the number of students they enroll, but for how many of their students succeed – particularly those in underserved populations. These funding models are helping focus institutions on the need to control costs while still delivering high-quality degrees.

More than at any time in our history, the issue of talent has become the dominant element of the nation’s public policy dialogue. Whoever serves as president over the next four years will need to help boost that talent by making increased educational attainment a top national priority.

Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation.

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