Higher Ed: Growing the Middle Class with Modern, Adaptable Skills

An Essay by Dr. Eduardo J. Padrón, President of Miami Dade College and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner

Access to higher education and a curriculum that prepares students for jobs in knowledge-economy careers is key to growing the 21st century middle class.

A solid, sustainable middle class has undeniably been the backbone of America’s growth and prosperity. Our middle class has embodied the great American Dream, one where anyone can succeed if given the opportunity. This principle has defined America as vibrant, resilient, and optimistic, an economic and societal powerhouse respected and emulated by people in all corners of the world.

Yet, with the rise of a global economy, the face of the middle class has changed. So have traditional pathways to high-wage, recession-proof jobs. Gone are the days when a high school diploma was sufficient preparation for a job, or when a family survives on a blue-collar salary.

By 2020, an estimated 65% of all jobs will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school. What’s more, the U.S. could see a significant shortfall of workers with the skills needed to perform competitive jobs.

These are not mere statistics, but a realistic portrayal of the future of our country’s economy. The hands-on manufacturing and manual labor jobs of the 20th century are taking a back seat to 21st century jobs in such knowledge-economy careers as science, technology, and healthcare.

As that shift occurs, Americans must master a series of competencies and possess a set of soft skills only acquired through a college education. These include the development of strong communications skills, the ability to think critically and creatively, and the fostering of effective citizenship.

Today, more than ever, colleges and universities tasked with educating America’s workforce must be prepared to provide students with innovative curricula that eventually pair them with internships, apprenticeships, and lucrative jobs. It all stems from the implementation of programs that help our students find high-earning jobs, paired with a strategy that fosters strong partnerships with top industries and companies across the country.

These alliances expose students early on to the workforce, motivating them to seek skills that are in demand and that will eventually open doors of opportunity in multiple careers. Similarly, these partnerships link employers to future hires, securing the financial stability of up-and-coming professionals and strengthening our nation’s economy.

While having forward-looking programs available to students and middle-year professionals is key, ensuring they are successful and able to complete their degrees is vital for the growth of our middle class. By taking a holistic approach that combines clear pathways to completion and a built-in advising and support system, both new students and professionals looking to reinvent themselves or acquire additional skills can succeed.

At Miami Dade College, for example, course sequence guides now map out step-by-step academic pathways that help students select the best courses each term. In addition, students are paired with advisors who provide guidance about registration, coursework, and financial aid.

With innovative and accessible programs comes the need to reinvent the classroom experience, so that it reflects the trends of our modern knowledge economy and adequately prepares students for competitive job opportunities. Faculty must implement high-impact practices through engaging pedagogy, innovative models such as flipped classrooms, and increased use of technology as a way to enhance valuable face-to-face interactions between students and instructors. In addition, connecting lessons learned in the classroom to real-time experiences outside the classroom challenges students to think outside the box, beyond their subject matter or career.

In order to successfully train and transform our future middle class, there first needs to be an understanding, at all levels, of the importance of an accessible and affordable path to college. There are people who still question the value of higher education, despite evidence that a college degree continues to be critical both to individual prosperity and to the prosperity of society.

There are also people who, while recognizing the need for postsecondary training, shy away from college classrooms because of exorbitant tuition costs. This decision will ultimately lead them down the path of poverty, and that is something our country simply cannot afford.

America’s economic success is dependent on an educated and innovative workforce, and academic leaders and policymakers must come together to craft strategies that make college more accessible and affordable to everyone.