People are often surprised when I say that “education is our best homeland defense,” given my 31-year service in the military, but I firmly believe that education is the bedrock of a successful society. We need a skilled population that can out-innovate our competitors and create the jobs of the future.
As a father, I know that America’s youth are our national treasure. It is they who will continue to make our country prosper for generations to come. But sadly, too many of our nation’s youth are unable to get a world-class education or training today. As President, I will work every day to improve our educational and training system and ensure that every American can access the high-quality education and skills they deserve.
By now the benefits of early childhood education are clear to most people, but a recent study in North Carolina put them into even more stark relief. The study out of Duke University tracked over a million students in North Carolina born between 1998 and 2000. Due to differing public school budgets and priorities across the state, some students were able to enroll in publicly funded Pre-K at the age of four, while others were not. Students were followed through the 8th grade, including end-of-year math and reading scores, special education placements, and whether or not they were ever held back a grade. They also tracked a variety of other possible factors that might affect outcomes, including parents’ education, race, socio-economic status, and even birth weights. The results were clear: across the board, regardless of other factors, students who attended well-funded early education at the age of four had significantly higher reading and math abilities throughout elementary and middle school, they were significantly less likely to repeat a grade, and by their 8th grade year they were 30% less likely to be enrolled in special education programs.
It is time to institute a federal mandate for early childhood education to begin at the age of four and to provide necessary funding for states and municipalities that need assistance to fulfill it. As President, I will work hard to ensure we can do so in a deficit-neutral way. Over the long run, this investment in our children’s future will pay enormous dividends to our whole society. Numerous studies have demonstrated the critical importance of the first 2,000 days of a child’s development to their lifelong success in personal and community relationships and the workforce. That is why I also support expansion of a key nutrition program initiated by a bill I introduced in Congress to provide free school lunches to all students in communities where a certain number of students live below the poverty line. This is important because in many cases students needed to have their parents fill out a form in order to qualify for free lunches, and many of the students who needed the food were not able to get their parents to fill out the form. Making free lunches universal in as many schools as possible is also important because it reduces some of the stigma around economic disadvantages.
My experience in the Navy taught me that the best decisions are made based on facts and data, and that once a decision is made there must be benchmarks and measurements in place to determine the effectiveness of a course of action. I believe that, to a large extent, our national inability to make meaningful policy about K-12 education is the result of a lack of assessable data on what students are expected to know in each grade, combined with each state using measurement systems intended to artificially inflate their own numbers.
A Wall Street Journal report analyzing data from New York provides an example of this problem. In 2009, 86% of the students who took New York’s standardized tests had “proficient or better” scores in math. These results were roundly criticized across the state as being artificially inflated, so the next year New York raised the cutoffs determining what qualifies as “proficient.” Accordingly, 61% of students achieved that rank. Then, in 2013, after New York became one of the first states to use new tests aligned to national Common Core standards, less than one-third of students were found to be “proficient” in math. What this means is that policymakers have been stuck using data without definition. As a result, instead of making decisions about how to increase educational success, states are simply deciding to redefine their terms. Yes, the tests may be standardized, but they haven’t been linked to an actual standard. Teachers can’t measure their methods, parents don’t know if their child is falling behind, and students waste time and tears taking tests that don’t improve their skills.
However, those Common Core standards offer some hope. The final set of data from the New York example, I believe, holds great promise. When 45 states and the District of Columbia adopted the Common Core State Standards — which were developed by teachers, parents, education experts, and school administrators — they did so in part to reform the toxic testing that resulted from the way the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program was implemented. The high-stakes testing regime of NCLB focused on filling in bubbles on multiple choice exams to assess whether students were “proficient”, but each state’s students were judged against their own state standards. With Common Core, on the other hand, a national standard is set by describing what each student in each grade level should know in English language literacy and mathematics to prepare for college. The standards are benchmarks, not curricula. A school’s curriculum will remain locally developed. The standards say where each student should be, not how to get them there. And once they are adopted, modern testing should focus on problem-solving, instead of bubble-filling, and should take advantage of the kind of adaptive student-centric testing afforded by recent technological advancements in computer testing (tests which more accurately gauge actual skill level by shifting the questions it asks based on students’ answers).
Based on my many conversations with educators and parents, the Common Core standards are not perfectly written — especially in the lower grade levels. I have read many of the distressingly obtuse questions written for Common Core Practice Tests, and we absolutely must do better. But the idea of a common standard is crucial if we are serious about getting reliable data on whether our students have the skills necessary to transition into higher education or enter the workforce upon graduation. Good decisions require good data, and assessing progress requires meaningful benchmarks.
As the father of a daughter in high school, I am particularly concerned about the soaring costs of a college education. When I was growing up, it was possible to “work your way” through college with part-time and summer employment. Today, that is virtually impossible. Between 1989 and 2016, the average cost of a 4-year college education went from $26,902 to an eye-popping $104,480 today. Even after adjusting for inflation, the cost of college roughly doubled during those 27 years. And rising costs are showing no signs of slowing down.
I believe the time has come to take drastic action to make college more affordable: it’s time to make government loan money to colleges and universities contingent upon the institution’s keeping tuition cost increases at or below the level of inflation in the broader economy. Schools may be able to apply for a waiver in some circumstances, but we must ensure fairness and accountability across the board. We can no longer continue to saddle our young people with decades of debt caused by institutional inefficiency and inflexibility.
One more way to address the high cost of college is to take action on behalf of students who transfer from one institution to another by establishing a national credit transfer system among accredited colleges. Currently, some 40% of students transfer colleges — in particular from junior or community colleges to 4-year colleges and universities — but nearly half of their courses are not accepted at their new school. A national credit transfer system would save transfer students time and money and get them into the workforce faster.
We need to deal with the onerous effects of student debt on so many of our working-age people. First and foremost, we need to change the way interest rates are calculated on government loans (currently the loan rate is based on the 10-year Treasury bond), because as it stands the government is set to make $127 billion in profit off of student loans this decade. That is outrageous. Students who take out loans are taking enough of a risk without the federal government raking in billions from them. If we instead commit our country to profit-free student loans, it will significantly lower the cost of higher education.
We also need to deal with existing debt, taking into account that many borrowers were pressured into accepting loans that the providers should have known would be incredibly difficult to pay back on time. To resolve this issue, I support improving an existing income-based repayment program. Under that plan, known as REPAYE (Revised-Pay-As-You-Earn), borrowers pay 10% of their discretionary income (total income minus 150% of the poverty line) for 20 years, after which any remaining balance is forgiven. I believe the REPAYE program can be improved by reducing payments to 5% of discretionary income, and possibly reducing the years to 10 or 15 (at least for certain low-income borrowers), making enrollment in the program automatic and universal — for everyone, including grandfathering in people who already have student loans. We can use this program to reduce the burden of excessive debt on those who need it, while also teaching borrowers the important lesson that they must live up to their commitments.
This plan will surely not be as popular as across-the-board debt forgiveness is among people with student loan debt, but it is a fair deal — and, from a political perspective, will no doubt be much more popular among the 44% of college graduates who have no debt, and the roughly 70% of American adults who have no college degree. It is my firm belief that government resources are much better spent on “Training for a Lifetime” (described in full below), to ensure that all workers, regardless of their level of educational attainment, can get the skills they need to make a living in today’s economy. However, I do also believe that private student loan debt should once again be made dischargeable through bankruptcy proceedings.
As President, I will lead our country to make a national commitment to what I call “Training for a Lifetime.” In the military, we constantly train and re-train servicemembers — this explains why the U.S. Air Force runs the largest community college system in the country — because technology changes so rapidly. But while technology might become obsolete, a hard worker never will.
In the United States as a whole, our spending on labor training is .001% of our GDP, the lowest of all developed countries. Yet there are great models around the country that point to ways to improve this situation. In Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Las Vegas, a private non-profit called Tech Impact runs a free 16-week program called ITWorks. The first 11 weeks of the program include education in basic information technology skills, while the last five weeks are an internship with a local company or non-profit, giving trainees some real-life, hands-on experience. So far they have had over 500 young people (ages 18-26) participate, and 75% of participants have found employment after six months, earning an average of $35,000 per year. This free program is supported by foundations, corporations, and state and local governments where it is active. With more support, it could expand further.
What we need is a system-wide transformation of our national job training infrastructure. With significant public and private investment we can reach a point at which the entire workforce will be trained and retrained in increasingly higher skill-sets as the world and technology changes. Through public education, federal student loans, and a raft of other programs, nearly every worker in this country has reached their current position in part because of public investment in them, and we forfeit our nation’s investment when we allow any worker to be left behind by globalization or technological advancement. For the relatively low cost of job re-training, we can maintain the kind of skilled workforce we need for the 21st century. This I consider the #1 priority in education for the entire American workforce.
In order to improve access to workforce training, we need to implement a wide range of solutions on the federal level, including providing more support for public-private partnerships to increase investment in training infrastructure, more federal funding for state and local training programs, more registered apprenticeships on federally-funded building or infrastructure repair projects, and developing a national apprenticeship program for one-on-one training. Furthermore, when jobs and industries disappear, whether due to globalization or technological developments (such as robotics or artificial intelligence), the government should ensure that workers can access training for the jobs available in their place. If we don’t make workforce training for a lifetime a national priority, our country will not be able to compete with global rivals.