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Rubio on Middle-Class Opportunity and the Need for Education Reform


Yesterday, at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Senator Rubio delivered a short but important speech on middle-class opportunity, 21st-century workforce needs, and the need to reform our education system.

Among other things, Rubio argues that we must let 21st-century workforce needs shape the curriculum that we offer our students:

The bottom line is we cannot grow the 21st century middle class without capacitating our people with the skills they need for the 21st century. And one last thing that that’s going to require is more interaction between the economy – the business community, the job creators – and the institutions that are preparing our kids at every level. That means more of an overlap between what our curriculum is doing and what our economy needs. In the 21st century, I would imagine that that’s going to constantly change.

Rubio’s insight implies a major transformation in America’s approach to higher education. Bachelor’s degrees have a venerable tradition, but that system may no longer suffice to ensure that our labor force remains the most productive in the world. It may no longer provide the maximum opportunity for our citizens. The American economy would profit enormously from a system in which skills-specific credentials are valued and supported, and allowed to compete with bachelor’s degrees for what they’re really worth.

This is especially true given the increasingly pressing need to provide educational opportunities to a very large population of non-traditional students, another point Rubio makes. Our education system has to be able to accommodate people who may need training later in life, who may be in transition between careers, or whose family circumstances prevent them from packing up and moving to a four-year college.

In “Anatomy of a Revolution,” one of us argues that traditional institutions of higher education need to come to terms with the future if they hope to survive. A recent Pew Research Center survey finds that a majority of prospective students believe the value of a college degree is no longer worth the cost. Traditional institutions of higher education have have become overly complex and mired in debt, making them unsustainable business models. It is likely that a considerable number of institutions will fail in the coming decade. Those that survive will do so because they have adapted to the needs of the global marketplace. That means providing students with value commensurate with their cost.

Last year, the other co-author of this post was commissioned to write a report on the future of higher education for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, along with Vance McMahan, policy director for Governor George W. Bush in Texas during the 1990s. One of our key findings was that the for-profit education sector holds enormous promise for transforming our education system, if the federal government will just get out of its way. Alas, as Senator Rubio points out in his remarks, the Department of Education’s conditions on which institutions can be accredited for federal student aid wind up excluding many of the most effective and efficient purveyors of the skills Americans will need to be upwardly mobile in the 21st century.

Sweeping higher-education reform is hugely important to our future. As Rubio points out, it may not by the most high-profile political problem, but it impacts the lives of millions of ordinary people. Rubio’s commitment to tackling the issue stands to his credit.  

— Tom Lindsay is director of the Center for Higher Education, and Mario Loyola is director of the Center For Tenth Amendment Studies, at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.