Before attending school as a child, we know, at most, of the longing and anticipation we feel, while we wait for our older brothers and sisters or our neighborhood buddy to come home, brandishing our first backpack that doesn’t yet serve a purpose and hoping to be like them. Our initial envy is replaced by our enthusiasm in running to the bus to plop down next to a friend, our feet dangling above the ground, as we ponder our next recess adventure along our jostling daily ride. Years later, amidst piles of homework and textbooks, we start to wonder why we’ve been made to go every day and why we aren’t outside throwing a ball, snuggled up reading our favorite book, or vying for dominance of virtual worlds with our friends.
We near the end of our compulsory studies, and anxiety sets in. We’re only beginning to know who we might be, and now we’re expected to know what do for the rest of our lives. Is school the best use of my time and money? Have I studied and worked hard enough? Am I smart enough? Can I afford to follow the path I desire? What if I’m not sure what I want to do? What if I try, and no one needs the skills I possess?
Of the 85 percent of U.S. high school students who graduate on time or the 67 percent of high school graduates who enroll in college the following year, how many know that it will cost them $25,000 per year to attend a four-year, in-state, public college or how they’ll fund it? How many know what their lifetime earnings and employment status will look like compared to a peer who participates in an apprenticeship, vocational school, or the military? When they complete their degree, will they be able to pay their bills?
All of us benefit from the skills and knowledge acquired from years of education, both through our own ability to meaningfully earn income and through the human capital unlocked in the people around us. We’ll need nurses, machinists, and software developers long after we’ve completed our own formal education and our own careers. We’ll even need jobs that we can’t conceive of yet. How do we forge a path to our own ambitions and the labor market of tomorrow, and how should we pay for it? To unpack these questions and bolster investment in our children, our students, and our economy, we’ve detailed our thoughts and related research on knowledge acquisition below.