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The United States is paying a big price for having an under-educated population, according to Ron Ferguson, PhD, a professor in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. “When my generation is retired and many of my generation have not saved enough for retirement, they’re going to be relying on the public sector. We need as many productive citizens paying taxes as we can get and not more young people who are also relying on public assistance.”
Interviewed for a segment of the nationally broadcast KET series, Dropping Back In, Ferguson argues the need for career guidance for secondary students that includes options other than a four-year college degree. You can view the entire series online at droppingbackin.org.
“This is a fundamental turning point for society with regards to whether we’re going to have the productivity that we're going to need to support the population that we’re going to have over the next 25, 50, 75 years.”
More than a dozen nations now boast higher graduation rates than the U.S., according to Ferguson. And more than a dozen other nations have higher math problem-solving scores. “Sometimes we think that the United States’ achievement gap problem and the challenge relative to the rest of the world is that we have more people of color and they don’t do well,” he said. “But our white students are 14th or 15th in the world when it comes to math problem solving among 15-year olds.”
The Dropping Back In series notes that every year, 1 million American students drop out of high school. That’s roughly 5,500 per school day – the equivalent of eight high schools closing their doors, every day. People without a high school diploma are twice as likely to be unemployed and more likely to abuse drugs, become teenage parents and live in poverty. 3 out of 4 prison inmates are high school dropouts.
“We don’t really know what the cost to America is by failing to educate large numbers of students,” noted Ferguson. “But it’s really risky. We can hope that we get lucky and students get into their twenties and decide they’re going to self-educate – start reading and doing all these kinds of things – but that doesn’t seem very likely.”
Ferguson warns that failure to prepare large percentages of young Americans to become productive citizens will result not only in a baby boom generation relying on public assistance but also a generation of young adults unable to support themselves.
“I’m less interested in whose fault it is than whose problem it is,” he said. “We’re all part of this society and it’s changing in a way that is hard to anticipate. Just think of the technological progress in the last five years. Things are changing rapidly; particularly in this economy where there are huge numbers of people looking for work or can’t find work.”
High school dropouts cost taxpayers as much as $350 billion annually in lost wages, taxable income, health, welfare and incarceration costs.
“We have a civic responsibility to help prepare young adults to be adults,” said Ferguson. “One of the major challenges these days is the sense that the economy doesn’t need a lot of our young people. Trying to find a reason for them to get up in the morning is important, yet whose job is it to make sure that unemployed young people have a productive use for their time?”