But Jamie Merisotis lays out a compelling case in his new book, America Needs Talent: Attracting, Educating & Deploying the 21st-Century Workforce, that instead of eliminating the Department of Education — a favorite target of politicians — it needs to be remade, along with a number of other federal agencies, into a new Department of Talent to grow the future skilled workforce.
“The only way we will ever get to a truly coordinated national talent strategy is to make sure that the people who control the allocation of resources and implement policy actually work together,” Merisotis writes.
Merisotis is president of the Lumina Foundation, which has handed out hundreds of millions of dollars in grants in recent years advocating for new pathways through higher education so that more Americans can earn credentials with value in the job market.
Despite Lumina’s efforts and those of other foundations, the United States is not even in the top 10 among developed countries when it comes to higher education attainment by its young people. And it’s clear from his book — which is a mix of personal biography and policy ideas — that Merisotis is impatient with the pace of change in an economy where studies have predicted that nearly half of American jobs are at risk of being displaced by automation and artificial intelligence.
The idea that some sort of education after high-school is necessary to compete in this new economy has been drilled into American students for decades, but unlike the high-school movement in the early 1900s, the modern college movement hasn’t produced the same tectonic shift in the American economy.
There are several reasons for this. One is that higher ed is not compulsory or free, like high school, and just two-thirds of high-school graduates immediately go on to college. Second, just slightly more than 50 percent of American students who enter college actually leave with a degree.
“Even with the evidence that a college education is so powerful, there is tremendous variation in it,” Merisotis told me in an interview. “It depends on where you live, your income, where you go to college, what you major in. That makes for more complex outcomes.”
As a result, Merisotis believes that a change in federal policy is necessary to fix the leaky pipeline of students from high-school to college and into the workforce. His proposal for a Department of Talent would combine the Education Department with the employment and training functions of the Labor Department and the talent recruitment areas of the immigration service under Homeland Security.
All three areas of government are responsible for developing talent, but they often either don’t see that as their mission or don’t work together toward that goal. The Education Department sees “job training” as a lesser role taken on by the Labor Department.
“There is so much competition internally in the government. It’s hard to execute,” Martha Kantor told Merisotis in the book. Kantor spent five years in the Education Department as the top federal official on higher education. “There was some beauty in having a Health, Education and Welfare Department.”
After that department closed in 1979, new separate federal agencies were created that added to the bureaucracy and competition.
The idea of driving any sort of change from Washington runs counter to what is happening right now in other policy areas — gun control, health care or marriage equality — where the battles are largely fought at the state level. American higher ed is largely run by the states, so I asked Merisotis why even try to influence change within the federal government.
He said that higher education is not just colleges and universities, but increasingly an interconnected web of other providers, including the military, libraries, museums, and assorted for-profit providers, including new players such as the coding boot camps and free MOOCs, that all cross state lines.
What’s more, investment in higher education has been uneven by the states, leading to geographic concentrations of educated Americans and furthering the economic divide. In 1970, nearly all the metro areas in the United States were within five points of the national average of adults with a college degree. Today, only about half are, according to the Brookings Institution.
“The federal government needs to do more and do better,” Merisotis told me, “but it’s not going to be the only spark. There needs to be a role for the private sector capital, for immigration, and for cities.”
It’s clear to even the casual observer that the current structure of the American higher ed system that created the spark for the economy after World War II and during Cold War has probably run its course. The country’s ability to educate and train workers for jobs in this economy is failing to keep pace, and the price of college is increasingly out of the reach of more Americans.
Despite these trends, Merisotis remains confident in what’s next. Indeed, the last chapter of his book is titled “The Second American Century,” where he lays out how investments in people can lead to prosperity similar to that of the 20th Century. It’s an inspiring message about the powerful role of education in a political season not full of many of them.