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How to educate the world without so much student debt

Zack Rosebrugh for Quartz
  • Michael J. Coren
By Michael J. Coren

Climate reporter

The nature of work has changed. Education, for the most part, has not. The educational system was built for an economic disruption that began in the 1800s. At the time, most people in the US and Europe still lived on farms. Once industrialization, steam power, and railroads knit together vast markets, opportunities and people began flooding into cities and factories. Between 1870 and 1920, 11 million Americans moved from rural areas to urban ones, and most of the 25 million new immigrants settled in cities, too. By the early 20th century, the West was urbanized with an educational system designed for the industrial age. Students, when they finished high school—or college for the lucky few—rarely looked back after entering the workforce.

Today, the industrial economy is being eclipsed by a digital one. Manufacturing, once nearly a third of all US jobs, has followed farming as a shrinking share of the economy accounting for just 8.5% of all jobs. By 2028, the BLS projects more than 85% of all Americans will be employed in the service economy, from retail to home care. A similar transition is bearing down on every advanced economy, and eventually developing ones too, as automation and artificial intelligence spread to every industry.

Countries and individuals are now trying to determine how to prepare for this new economy. Traditionally, the answer was simple: ‘Go to college.’ Often, that made sense: the higher salaries from a degree—not to mention a strong correlation with health, happiness, and relationship satisfaction — outweighed the debt the average graduate incurred. For many, it still does. A US graduate student in 2020 can expect to nearly double their effective salary compared to what they would have earned in 1964, while workers without a college diploma have seen their real wages plateau and then decline.

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