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If only $100 million were left in the U.S. government’s budget, it should be allocated towards creating a new, premier, internationally competitive, national vocational university. The recent financial crisis exposed and exacerbated underlying flaws in the nation’s economic foundation. Chief among these are inadequate education for a 21st century workforce, and in turn a decline of the U.S. middle class. Both highly skilled and unskilled labor are available in the U.S., but there is a “skills gap” as identified by a February 2011 Pathways to Prosperity Harvard University study, whereby Americans are simply unqualified to fill middle-class wage jobs. As a result, there is a real likelihood that youth today will experience downward mobility relative to their parents, according to a September 2011 Pew Charitable Trusts report.
These problems are not easy to solve, nor can they be solved with a silver bullet, but a preeminent vocational university is a significant starting point. This new university will focus exclusively on new and growing industries, unlike traditional vocational schools. Vocational education in the United States is generally disregarded because of an associated stigma. However, that same Harvard study found that 27 percent of those with vocational training earned more than those with a traditional Bachelor’s degree. Several nations, such as Singapore and China, derive great value from new age, well developed, vocational education systems. Creating an elite U.S. vocational school can spark a new and vibrant U.S. vocational system.
There are several requirements for an elite vocational institution aimed at eliminating a stigma. First, it must be relatively affordable for Americans to attend. Second, it must graduate intelligent students into fields that need workers and that will grow throughout the next several decades. Third, it must be treated as elite. These goals can be attained in part by creating partnerships with business that lead to employment for graduates, joining with other universities in exchange programs and opportunities for further education, and by maintaining continuous sources of funding to keep attendance costs in line.
As a practical matter, the U.S. Department of Education can allocate the $100 million seed capital to a state through a competitive bidding process. The Department of Education should convene a cross-section of business leaders to determine the institution’s three educational priorities, such as applied science, healthcare, and computer engineering. An independent panel comprised of business leaders, policymakers, and education experts will then select among the qualifying state bids. The winning state will select a location, and will be able to keep excess money if the project is under-budget, but must fund any cost overruns. This process, coupled with a national drive for private donations and funding from tuition, can bring this idea to fruition.
The creation of a renowned, revered, and cutting-edge vocational institute does not purport to be an instant or easy fix for the nation’s economic woes. However, it can be a launching pad for reinvigorating the American workforce, making America attractive for businesses, and reestablishing a shrinking middle class.
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