Republican candidate for president Mitt Romney meets supporters at a rally in Florida. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

It reminded me of President Obama’s decision to serve as a community organizer in low-income neighborhoods in Chicago after graduating from Columbia in 1983. Both men had points in their path in which they took learning risks, prioritized service and broadened their definition of professional advancement.

President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign event at the University of Colorado - Boulder. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Pres)

It’s often stated that America’s capacity to compete with superpowers like China will depend on the quality of education future generations have access to. Yet, the topic is often devalued and left nearly ignored by politicians. The limited attention that it has received within the presidential race is especially frightening.

In an age when the United States is outsourcing so many jobs and falling behind in sustaining a skill-based workforce, it will be important for all of us to not limit ourselves to traditional models of learning and employment. Unlike Germany and other countries, America does not seem to understand the long-term value of apprenticeship. But that does not mean that we too should cut ourselves off from learning that takes place outside of the classroom.

Both Obama and Romney have a tendency to speak primarily about higher education when laying out their policy. This may be an indirect response to the Occupy Wall Street movement’s heavy emphasis on student debt. While public dialogue about student loans is long overdue, there is so much more at stake.

The reality is that social and economic disparities have left millions of young people far behind on the path to advancement at the primary and secondary levels. The documentary “Waiting for Superman” sought to shed light on how the U.S. educational system draws a very distinct line between “the haves and have-nots.”

Years of overcrowded classrooms, unqualified teachers, outdated textbooks, poor curriculums and limited resources take their toll on student learning. When these students compete for admission and financial aid (if they even make it to high school graduation), their educational process is often at a disadvantage due to these countless setbacks.

All too often, youth are led to believe that higher education is the only pathway to the American Dream. Unless their guardians are wealthy enough to pay out of pocket or impoverished enough to meet the income cap requirements for financial aid, these students will incur tens of thousands of dollars in debt to go to to college. And who can fault them for working hard and then wanting to be able to go to their college of choice?

When it comes time to decide on a major, it’s unlikely that anyone will have had an honest conversation with them about their earning potential based on their major and internship experience. There will be no cost-benefit analysis of what their earning potential amounts to once their debt is factored in. The college entry process is clouded by so much idealism that students never hear the hard truths that stand to benefit them the most.

There’s a lot of value to education that can’t be quantified, but we tend to narrow the scope of learning. What if the “detours” taken by the likes of Obama and Romney were viewed as an experience-based model of learning that students were encouraged to explore? Rather than cultivating “professional students” who always have their eyes set on the next degree, we should perpetuate a culture of meaningful and responsible risk-taking.

This isn’t to say that everyone is called to some altruistic endeavor like missionary work or community organizing. Capital-driven entrepreneurship, for example, requires risk-taking. The value of such innovation is that it often empowers the learner/risk-taker to create new avenues of learning and employment for others.

If our political leaders properly accessed how high the stakes are in relation to the cradle-to-prison-pipeline, it would be unforgivable for them to not prioritize education reform. Students, parents, business owners and our nation as a whole are challenged to to fill in the gaps left by our government by taking their fate in their own hands.

Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and The RootDC. She is the founder/editorial director of Urban Cusp, an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT .

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