My grandfather just barely got out of grade school. My stepfather, who raised me, dropped out right before he got his high school diploma. I was the first person in my direct line to graduate from college.
And if it hadn’t been for my education and the gifts that others gave me along the way to help me with it, I never would have become president. I now know that there is something fundamentally different about the role of education now than at any otHer time in our history. Throughout our history, education has given individuals more opportunity. When we made a commitment to mass education after World War II, including making college education available to veterans who served through the G.I. Bill, it helped to build an enormous middle class and to lift this country up — all of us.
Now, we’re in a third stage where education can either be the fault line dividing our country or the bridge by which we all walk into the 21st century. Because now it is not enough, as it was 50 years ago, or even 30 years ago, to have a large number of people with a college education creating economic opportunities for everybody else in a mass-production, industrial society.
For at least the last 15 years, our country has become more stratified, mote unequal, divided more than anything else by the level of education of adults in the workforce. So you have this paradoxical situation where we’ve been able to … see our country produce nearly 10 million new jobs [but] … about half of the American workforce has not gotten a raise after you adjust for inflation. And compared to 15 years ago, the people in the bottom half are basically working a longer work week, having less time to spend with their children and not really keeping up with inflation.
There are exceptions to these statements, but the general rule still holds. The fundamental problem is that in a global economy, where we’re all competing with everybody else everywhere else — we have to raise the skill levels of our people. Education has to become more democratic — small “d” — democratic, more widely available and more advanced than ever before. It must.
And that is what has driven the work to try to lift the quality and standards of education, [and] make it more broadly available. Perhaps most important, we’ve tried to, expand the availability of college. In the 12 years before ‘I came here, college education was the only thing that increased in cost more rapidly than health care.
This is a problem with serious implications for our country. if you look at the 1990 census, you see an utterly stunning fact. For the first time, American workers — particularly younger American workers — who have at least two years of education after high school, tend to get jobs where they are pretty secure. If they lose their job, they’re pretty good about getting another one. And they tend to get jobs that have a decent income with pretty good prospects for growth. Those who have less [education] tend to be stuck in jobs where they can’t change jobs very easily — and they usually lose ground to inflation. And the younger you are, the more profound those trends are likely to be.
We have to make our goal that college will be accessible to all Americans, and that the norm will be that everybody would at least [accrue] two [more] years [of education] after high school. That should become the rule [and] what we all accept.
We need to make sure that we reach [people] when they’re young, keep them in school and give them something to hope for. This is a way of our being able to say to the poorest kids in this country: If you hang on, you can at least do this. This is something we will give you if you hang on. I really believe that if we can raise the quality, range and reach of education, we can make sure that we grow together as a country, instead of being split apart. We have got to recognize that education for everybody, more of it and better, is the central most important thing we can do to make sure that we go into the 21st century able to meet our challenges and protect our values.
There is no stopping this country in the 21st century if we do that one thing, if we give everybody who will work for it the chance to live out their dreams. if that is our shared commitment, our best days are still ahead. This is excerpted from a recent speech President Bill Clinton gave to the White House Scholars and their families.
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