With the global economy in turmoil, there is tremendous uncertainty and urgency as the new administration prepares to settle into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. We know that national priorities are being reshuffled and that it will cost trillions of dollars to address the home-mortgage crisis, proposed bailouts of the banking, insurance, and automobile industries, two foreign wars, and climate change.
We are at a defining moment in American history. How we as a nation respond will determine whether it's the "fall of the Roman Empire" or the emergence of the New America. Will it be turbulence and demise, or peace and prosperity?
Absent from the fever-pitched national discussion is the one subject that will determine our nation's fate: the educational progress of low-income children.
Disturbingly, educational trends and their economic consequences continue to spiral downward. The United States is the only industrialized nation where young people are less likely than their parents to earn a high school diploma, while the education gap between our low-income and middle- and upper-income students continues to widen, as it has every year since 1980.
A child born into the lowest economic quintile is four times less likely to graduate from high school and 10 times less likely to graduate from college than a child from the top economic quintile. Yet America's fastest-growing population is low-income children. While this underserved cohort of students expands, jobs increasingly require higher levels of education.
The challenge before us is stark: if we do not move significantly more underserved youth to college and ensure that they have the skills required in the 21st-century marketplace, we will face a diminished tax base, a generation that's undereducated and unemployable, and total erosion of America's position in the global economy.
Consider these hard facts: Dropouts cost the nation $84 million in lost income tax revenue each year, while each dropout costs his community, on average, an additional half-million dollars over a lifetime in public assistance, incarceration, and health care. What's more, in just 10 years there will be 20 million unfilled jobs in this country because we don't have enough educated citizens.