Economic opportunity is the leading domestic issue of our time—and a key to reinvigorating our economy is providing quality education and training opportunities for the about 5.5 million young Americans who are neither in school nor working. Yet the topic of education and how it affects our economic opportunity as a nation was notably absent from all of the presidential debates, which lacked a rigorous exchange of ideas on how to strengthen the country by ensuring equal opportunity for all.
From President Obama’s plan to create Pathways to Opportunity to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s A Better Way agenda, leaders on both sides of the aisle have provided ideas on how to improve education, training and jobs to close the nation’s opportunity gap.
While the presidential campaigns have been mostly lacking in education ideas, the candidates have given us some hints: Secretary Hillary Clinton has shared plans for making college debt free and how to have access to high-quality preschool for all, while Donald Trump has highlighted the importance of school choice for low-income families.
Here are six policy recommendations for the next president to boost opportunity and help make the American Dream a reality by ensuring children and youth get the right start.
1. Expand access to high-quality early childhood education programs.
America currently invests less in children under the age of 5 than most other developed countries and has a low level of enrollment in early education programs. We know that a dollar invested in children before kindergarten can have great impact, especially for students born into lower socio-economic conditions.
2. Focus on recruiting, training and supporting teachers.
High-quality teachers help students succeed. We must reform how we recruit, train, and support such teachers. Teacher residencies and preparation programs like Urban Teacher Center represent opportunities to increase the number of teachers with real-world training experiences. National service programs like Citizen Schools work in high-need schools, share best practices such as recruiting people with strong leadership skills and connections to the community and are sources of a diverse talent pool.
3. Improve and expand school-based Early Warning Systems and tie them to evidence-based interventions for at-risk students.
Research has helped us identify clear indicators and benchmarks that tell us when a student is at risk of dropping out. These students can be immediately connected to the assistance they need to get back on track by assigning them a school-connected mentor who would create an educational plan. Interventions like these will help keep us on track to achieve a 90% high school graduation rate by 2020.
4. Encourage college-savings plans. Many low-income families lack the resources to save for the future. Research shows that low-income children who have a college savings account in their names are at least three times more likely to attend college and four times more likely to graduate than their peers who lack such savings accounts for post- secondary training and education programs.
5. Increase high-quality, college-ready secondary level instruction combined with comprehensive support services.
A number of our coalition members such as YouthBuild USA, The Corps Network, Year Up, Urban Alliance and Jobs for the Future have developed effective programs to reconnect Opportunity Youth, who have been disconnected from their communities, and first-generation students to post-secondary education and training. Their strategies involve engaging youth in a career and college-going culture that supports service and work experiences, case management, and counseling and/or mentoring.
6. Modernize funding streams like Pell Grants to address the needs of today’s college student and work with Congress to reinstate year-round Pell grants.
Currently, if a student enrolls full-time in college for two consecutive semesters, they exhaust their Pell eligibility for the academic year, which precludes students from being able to take additional credits in summer and winter sessions. Reinstating year-round Pell grants will support students who are seeking to complete their college program faster than the traditional college student, whether for financial or personal reasons.
These goals and recommendations are achievable for the next administration. They have bipartisan support in the Capitol and beyond, are proven to work, and involve multiple sectors from employers to nonprofits and the government. The next president must dedicate resources towards improving our educational system as well as our economy. When our youth do well, our communities do well, and our economy follows.