The sluggish economy has sparked new debate about the role of U.S. education, such as whether liberal arts or specialized degrees (WashPost) create the best workforce. It also raises new questions about growing student debt (Slate), which the government said today had reached $867 billion (Bloomberg). Many experts say U.S. educational achievement remains tied to the country’s ability to compete globally, and some argue it affects the overall trajectory of economy.
As candidates look to long-term fiscal policy and job creation, education highlights yet another philosophical divide over the role of the federal government. At last week’s GOP debate, Ron Paul said, “There is no authority for the federal government to be involved in education.” Newt Gingrich said that he would shrink the Department of Education “down to doing nothing but research,” while Rick Santorum said he would cut and eliminate education funding from the federal government so that it could be dealt with at a local level. More recently, Santorum questioned the need for the government to encourage a college education saying it devalued people with different skills and dreams.
These remarks come just a few weeks after President Obama unveiled a series of initiatives (EdWeek) to give a boost to science, technology, engineering, and math programs, saying such proposals “help America compete for the jobs and industries of the future.” A recently released report (PDF) from the White House concluded that U.S. businesses will require one million additional graduates with degree in math science, technology, and engineering alone over the next ten years to stay competitive internationally.
Check out what the candidates have to say about the economy in this CFR Issue Tracker.
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Brookings’ Grover Whitehurst, while arguing for school choice, wrote in a recent in op-ed in Education Next: “The education system clearly has vast consequences for this nation’s economy, society, and world leadership. The federal government has a crucial role to play in protecting and promoting precisely those national interests that lower levels of government cannot.”
Education reform expert Michael Barber said in a November 2011 CFR meeting that history shows that leadership in public education is associated with leadership in economic performance, which is strongly related to power and influence in the world.
A 2011 report from MIT examines the growing earnings and employment disparity among U.S. workers with varying levels of education accounting for a number of factors including shifts in technology, job offshoring, and a declining manufacturing base.
—Contributing Editor Liriel Higa and Senior Editor Toni Johnson