The Random 12th vs. 14th Years of Education

April 24, 2014 | Blog, News

Random Question: Why 12 Years of Education and Not 14?

Americans send their children to 12 years of school.  Why 12? Why not 11? or 9? 13 or 14?

In proposing that the nation begin providing the 13th and 14th years of education for free, this issue keeps coming up for me.  And the more I think about it, the more it makes sense that today it simply takes longer to get people ready for living a stable life in the 21st Century, and thus we need to ensure that everyone is able to obtain two more years of educational support.

Many factors would appear to contribute to this shift:

1. Childhood is changing and lengthening.  A larger fraction of children (though not all) are shielded from many of the experiences that help people becoming independent and self-sufficient.  Fewer students walk to the bus stop alone, play outside of the supervision of their parents, work at paying jobs, or choose their own activities and plan their own schedules.  With parents playing such a prominent role throughout their adolescence in particular, how can we expect 18 year olds to suddenly and magically become ready to engage in the volatile and risky world characterizing both higher education and the workplace?

2. Higher education is riskier than ever.  It used to be that a student could enroll in college as an experiment, to try out their identity as an undergraduate, and see how they adapted to life on their own at the same time. The consequences of failure are now substantial, and those promoting college entry for all students need to seriously consider this. Students who have tried and completed only some college- but no credential–are now shouldering a lot of debt, around $10,000 according to the latest data.  That’s the cost of “failure” today– debt that is very hard to pay off in a labor market that favors sheepskins over credits.

3. The workplace is also a different place than before. Employers no longer offer much certainty or security for employees, workers have few rights or any claim to demand what they need, and thus people have to be ready and able to cope– transferrable skills such as critical thinking and strong communication abilities are essential. And these are higher-order skills that are often not fully developed within those first 12 years. Some things just take a bit longer.

Sure, we could change the factors above and perhaps alleviate the need to ensure that a 13th and 14th year of education is obtainable. But creating systemic changes in parenting practices, neighborhood safety, workplaces, and college and university pricing across the board is a much bigger lift than simply reallocating current financial aid resources to make the 13th and 14th years of education free. Don’t you think?



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