An educational view dating back more than a century is getting a fresh look, and that could be the key to rethinking how we approach education and training after high school.

For more than 100 years, since the “high school movement” from 1910 to 1940, our expectations around universal high school completion have grown. Only about 9 percent of adults completed high school in 1910; today, it’s nearly 90 percent. Because we now take completing high school as a given, we don’t recognize how essential this movement has been to individual and social prosperity.

When it comes to postsecondary education, we are at a similar inflection point as we were 100 years ago with high school education. We need to invest in education and once again raise the floor on the skill level of the American workforce. Only about a third of adults have a bachelor’s degree. And while not everybody needs a college degree, everyone needs some type of high-quality education beyond high school to thrive in our increasingly complex workforce.

We tend to name things as we hope they’ll be, and so our “K-12” system defined the expectations of the last century. Today, we’re increasingly hearing about K-14—or, as some say, “14 is the new 12”—signaling an expectation for universal education from kindergarten through community college.

Is there a difference between PreK-14 and popular perceptions of free college, which many people view as an individual benefit for students? It may just come down to phrasing, but I prefer the idea of PreK-14 when described as an investment in stronger families, local economies, and skilled workers. Of course, any investment involves money, so at some point this becomes a conversation about budgets. But consider the need for action: It’s increasingly clear that the model of public K-12 is insufficient for most families—so it is not surprising that we see states developing responses.

Tom Harnisch, vice president of government relations with the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, said it’s important to persuade students and policymakers that two years of additional education makes economic sense.

“People are going to debate about what is the best policy architecture on that—the first-dollar programs versus the last-dollar programs,” Harnisch said. “And the discussion is about more than community college. Those two years might be at a state university or elsewhere. And there are programs focused on improving transfer pathways and expanding access to dual enrollment opportunities.”

Anthony Carnevale and co-authors Peter Schmidt and Jeff Strohl cited the urgent need for post-high school learning in their book, “The Merit Myth”: “Throughout our nation’s history, we’ve repeatedly raised the bar in defining how much education Americans need,” they wrote.

“Students are no longer assured a living wage with just a high school education. The nation needs to face the fact that people now need at least two years of college to have access to economic opportunity in a complex modern society.”

Not everyone agrees with the 14-year standard—or maybe I should say that not everyone wants to pay for it even though they recognize the need—but the ground is shifting in that direction. For example:

  • North Carolina—In the city of Lexington, the school system has established the K14 Initiative. School officials there note that “our world has evolved into a global, knowledge-based economy. Fourteen years of school, two years of postsecondary education, have become a necessity in this modern economy.” This is more than a change in thinking, the school district said: “This is a change of culture.”
  • Indiana—Ivy Tech Community College, the state’s public community college system, established its Office of K-14 Initiatives. It features the Indiana College Core, a block of 30 credit hours of college-level coursework that transfers to public colleges and universities. The learning outcomes include half a dozen skills, including quantitative reasoning, written communication, and social and behavioral skills.
  • Michigan—The Growing Michigan Together Council, formed to address the state’s sluggish population growth, drafted recommendations to make Michigan the “innovation hub of the Midwest” in part by expanding its PreK-12 system to PreK-14. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, in her January state of the state address, promoted a “Michigan Guarantee” of free pre-K through community college.

Despite growing awareness of the need for increased education, we’re lagging in efforts to meet that need. College enrollment has been declining for years, especially during the pandemic. Cost is a top concern, as anyone who has spoken with students and families knows. A report from Gallup and Lumina Foundation found that few students understand the actual price of obtaining a bachelor’s degree. And even though the cost to students is usually much less than the sticker price, roughly a third of undergraduates still need to take out loans, federal data show.

Low unemployment and the resulting availability of jobs requiring minimal education are also responsible for enrollment declines—even though those who lack advanced education and skills are too often trapped in dead-end jobs.

And the increasing need for greater skills shows no sign of abating. In fact, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, by 2031, 72 percent of US jobs will require some type of education beyond high school. Whether that post-high school education comes in the form of an associate degree, a bachelor’s, industry certification, or other credential, the message is clear: To succeed in the current and future economy, Americans need at least 14 years of schooling, not just the 12 we now expect. It is time for policy, funding, and practice to reflect that reality.

Opportunities for that education have been expanding. Dual enrollment—which allows students to earn college credit and even an associate degree while still in high school—has been growing in popularity, as have “promise programs.”

College Promise, a national non-profit that works to build public support for universally accessible postsecondary opportunities, last year counted 425 promise programs across all 50 states, compared with just 53 such programs in 2015.

However we get there, it makes good sense to reset our education expectations to include two years of learning beyond high school—at least as much sense as the high school movement of a century ago. We must do better, and we can’t wait for a perfect answer. We need to make steady improvements with the tools we have now.

We’ve been here before, of course. In 1947, the Truman Commission report, “Higher Education for American Democracy” called for a doubling of college attendance, the integration of vocational and liberal education—and free public education through the first two years of college.

That report calling for a 14-year standard was published 77 years ago. Shouldn’t we be further along by now?


This article was originally published in Forbes.

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