By Steve Gunderson
With the 2012 election season set against the backdrop of a nation struggling with debt and deficit woes, issues pertaining to economics and class have permeated today's political rhetoric.
Voices from across the ideological spectrum have their own ideas for creating economic growth that could resonate with lower-income workers seeking upward mobility and a middle class struggling to survive.
From my perspective, the only words that matter are education and access.
Between the 1960s and 1990s, our nation debated how to provide access and opportunity to low-income families seeking the best possible educational opportunities at the K-12 levels. Various forms of educational choices emerged as a result — from public-sector "choice" options to private-sector "vouchers."
A pioneer of the voucher system, Milton Friedman advanced the importance of education in a democracy with his 1962 book, "Capitalism and Freedom." And he was right.
But the importance of education today goes beyond its role in a democracy. Education — especially higher education and advanced training — is essential for securing 21st century jobs in a 21st century economy.
Whereas education reform has dominated our national conversation over the past 20 years, access to post-secondary education will define the debate for the next decade. A national commitment to improving access to post-secondary education is vital to ensuring our workforce can meet the demands of an increasingly competitive economy.
This effort must include ensuring America's minority populations, women, veterans and adults with jobs and families receive the skills they need to secure not only a job, but a career.
By 2018, 63% of all American jobs will require some level of post-secondary education. The McKinsey Institute projects 21 million jobs are needed to return to a 5% unemployment rate by 2025. If we consider the 63% estimate, that means we would need 14 million graduates with some degree of post-secondary education.
Additionally, a goal set by the Lumina Foundation would see 60% of the American workforce with some level of college degree by 2025 — they estimate that would require an additional 23 million completions. Though projections vary, one thing is certain: we are far from meeting that demand.
These numbers are both compelling and disturbing. Budget constraints at the state and federal levels are limiting the ability of public colleges and universities — as well as community colleges around the country — to adequately address the needs of a growing population of students seeking an advanced education. Our one hope may rest in private- sector higher education institutions.