Dems agree on how to fix education. College is a different ball game

Senator Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Kamala Harris (L-R) participate in the 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Houston, Texas, U.S. September 12, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

NEW YORK – The rancorous third Democratic debate last night held in the vicinity of the University of Houston in Texas, made one thing amply clear: given a year in office, the Dems on stage would passionately iron out all the problems shrouding primary and higher education in the country, make each and every child an academic model bound for future success in the workforce and teachers as wealthy as physicians.

Well, if only it were to be as simple as that. And, of course, assuming that one of the Dems on stage last night actually take on the reins of the White House, to tackle a problem arguably bigger than healthcare in the country, going by the number of individuals affected.

The solutions voiced on stage ranged from raising teacher salaries to a minimum of $60K to giving children access to quality education right from the kindergarten stage; strengthening teacher unions; having a secretary of education with experience as a public school teacher – a robust hit at the billionaire Betsy DeVos, criticized for her leaning towards school vouchers and charter schools. Doing away with student loans and debt received rapturous applause.

There was overwhelming consensus and mild diatribe on infusing more money into poorer school districts vs putting the onus on creating more jobs in inner neighborhoods to create a society conducive for overall change.

The Dems did themselves a world of good by going into depth on the issue of education in the brief time they had. Independent and dissatisfied right wing voters would surely have been impressed by the sincerity of the candidates to fix a system which seems perennially suffocating for lack of innovative ideas.

In a system where the dice is loaded in favor of wealthy public school districts and zip code determines a student’s success or failure, a large swath of the population would have renewed hopes for an equal and just school system across the US.

While everybody has their ideas on how to fix the system at the primary, middle and high school level, in the last few years focus has shifted on the relevance and objectives of college education itself. It’s fine to get a good public school or charter school education, but more people in the US seem to scorn and look down upon a college degree itself.

A new Pew Research Center survey says there is a growing undercurrent of dissatisfaction – even suspicion – among the public about the role colleges play in society, the way admissions decisions are made and the extent to which free speech is constrained on college campuses. And these views are increasingly linked to partisanship.

The new survey finds that only half of American adults think colleges and universities are having a positive effect on the way things are going in the country these days. About four-in-ten (38%) say they are having a negative impact – up from 26% in 2012.

The share of Americans saying colleges and universities have a negative effect has increased by 12 percentage points since 2012. The increase in negative views has come almost entirely from Republicans and independents who lean Republican.

From 2015 to 2019, the share saying colleges have a negative effect on the country went from 37% to 59% among this group. Over that same period, the views of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic have remained largely stable and overwhelmingly positive, noted Pew.

Gallup found a similar shift in views about higher education. Between 2015 and 2018, the share of Americans saying they had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in higher education dropped from 57% to 48%, and the falloff was greater among Republicans (from 56% to 39%) than among Democrats (68% to 62%).

Among those who say higher education is headed in the wrong direction, some of the reasons why they think this is the case differ along party lines. Majorities of Republicans (77%) and Democrats (92%) say high tuition costs are a major reason why they believe colleges and universities are headed in the wrong direction.

Democrats who see problems with the higher education system cite rising costs more often than other factors as a major reason for their concern, while Republicans are just as likely to point to other issues as reasons for their discontent. Roughly eight-in-ten Republicans (79%) say professors bringing their political and social views into the classroom is a major reason why the higher education system is headed in the wrong direction (only 17% of Democrats say the same).

And three-quarters of Republicans (vs. 31% of Democrats) point to too much concern about protecting students from views they might find offensive as a major reason for their views. In addition, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say students not getting the skills they need to succeed in the workplace is a major reason why the higher education system is headed in the wrong direction (73% vs. 56%).

Factors the public think should drive admissions decisions tie up with solid primary and secondary education – something the Dems want to fix by getting quality teachers on board and paying them better. High school grades top the list – 67% say grades should be a major factor in making these decisions, and about half (47%) say standardized test scores should be a major factor, and 41% say they should be a minor factor.

Pew notes that despite the public’s increasingly negative views about higher education and its role in society, most Americans say a college education is important – if not essential – in helping a young person succeed in the world today.

With data showing that the US is in the throes of shortage of medical professionals, especially doctors and nurses, and the situation headed towards a disaster in a decade’s time in states like Maine, the value of college education cannot be undermined despite partisanship on the subject.

The need of the hour is to inculcate STEM education at an early stage in schools across the country. Focus needs to be on how to address workforce shortage in certain industries in a time of immigration restrictions.

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)



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