“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” stated Nelson Mandela. More than anytime in history, we must heed his advice and make basic changes to our education system if we are going to maintain our economic and moral leadership around the world.

The United States entered the 21st Century as the world’s sole superpower. We had the third-largest population with 327 million people, the largest economy and the second- largest higher-education system. As recently as 20 years ago, the United States was ranked No. 1 in high school and college education. In 2009, the United States was ranked 18th out of 36 industrialized nations, and a 2019 survey of the Best Countries for Education reported the United States was ranked 20th behind China, Russia, Japan, and Finland. This survey was based on class size, test scores, and teacher-to-student ratios.

Currently, the $1.3 trillion in funding for education in our country comes primarily from state and local government. Federal funding accounted for about $200 billion. The United States spends more per student on education than any other country in the world, and while we have a reading literacy rate of 99% of the population over 15, we rank well below average in science and mathematics compared to other developed countries.

Based upon several studies, obtaining a post-secondary degree is still a worthwhile endeavor. From the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (2017), the median salary of an individual who has a high school diploma is $37,336. The median salary of an individual who has a bachelor’s degree is $68,405. The cost of obtaining a college degree has soared over 1,375% since 1978—more than four times the rate of overall inflation. The New York Federal Reserve statistics show that student loan debt has quadrupled since the start of 2005 to $1.48 trillion.

Over the last two decades, much has been done to improve our education system. Under the No Child Left Behind and Every Student Succeeds Acts, all American states were required to test students in public schools to ensure they are achieving the desired level of minimum education. In 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, providing funding to school districts and assistance in many other aspects in education including remedial students. With the election of President Trump and his appointment of Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, both primary and secondary education have taken several steps back in meeting the challenges that surround the new world of technology we live in.

New Mexico has not fared well in national educational rankings. In 2019, WalletHub ranked New Mexico as the worst state to raise a family. This review placed New Mexico 36th in the family fun category, 43rd in health & safety, 49th in education and childcare, 45th in affordability and 50th in socio-economics. Education Week Magazine ranked New Mexico 49th for educational quality, ahead of Mississippi and Nevada. In terms of college and career metrics, the magazine ranked New Mexico dead last. With the election of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, New Mexico has taken historic steps to improve our state’s education system. Foremost is the Governor’s plan to provide free tuition to all of the state’s 29 public colleges and universities.

The challenge for New Mexico and the rest of the 49 states is how to provide educational skills for the future marketplace. The Wall Street Journal reported less than half of the students, in more than a third of America’s colleges, will earn a credential within eight years. In addition, four in ten recent college graduates are in jobs that don’t require degrees. Even more telling is the projection that nearly half of all US jobs are at risk due to automation.

In a study by the University of Oxford, automation has already made manufacturing, mining, agriculture, and many other jobs much less labor-intensive. It is estimated that in just the field of manufacturing, we could lose up to 30 million jobs by 2030. As an example of how the marketplace is changing, 45% of IBM’s workforce now operates remotely, often from communities of their choice. Quite frankly, the solution to our education system is not just spending more money. We need to refocus our education curriculum to meet the needs of a changing and quickly evolving economic system, market and technological advancements.

As a mostly rural state, New Mexico has unique challenges in fulfilling this need. The US Chamber of Commerce in March issued a report, “Unlocking the Digital Potential of Rural America.” The study outlines recommendations for how the private and public sectors can help small businesses through technology. On a national scale, the study projects that “greater adoption of digital tools in rural America could add $140 billion to the US economy by 2021.” It predicts that businesses across rural America could create more than 360,000 jobs in the next three years! Currently only one-in-five business are digital, but they generate at least 80% of the overall rural small business revenue by selling their products and services online. To start this economic revival in rural America, we need to first increase funding for high-speed broadband. It is shocking that rural Americans are over 10 times more likely than urban residents to lack quality broadband access.

In a study conducted by New Mexico First, “Broadband access matters because of the changing job opportunities available to people in rural areas.” There are more opportunities than ever for companies to reach a workforce virtually. I believe that one of the keys to the future of rural New Mexico is in virtual office employment. To reach that goal, we must update the curriculum of our primary and secondary educational systems to ensure that our children are trained to take advantage of this new digital world.

Although education is normally a local and statewide concern, there are areas where the Federal Government can have substantial influence:

  • Increase funding for high-speed broadband in rural areas.
  • Promote technical vocational education and apprenticeship and alternative career paths other than a college education.
  • Provide funding for tuition-free post-secondary education based upon need.
  • Increase funding for community college business partnerships and apprenticeships.
  • Expand access to Federal Pell Grants for tuition to post-secondary education.
  • Provide monetary incentives for technical and vocational schools.
  • Assist local school districts in purchasing computers for the classroom.
  • Create incentives for schools to become more cost-efficient and student- focused.
  • Increase funding to assist tribal colleges and institutions that serve minorities. In terms of eliminating college tuition debt, I am deeply concerned about the hardship that $1.5 trillion in student loans has caused many of our college graduates. At the same time, I have a hard time asking the majority of taxpayers who do not have a college degree and earn less because they did not go to college to subsidize a minority who earn more because they did. Given the fact that the federal government holds the vast majority of student loans, I propose rewriting the term agreements so that many of these graduates have an opportunity to pay off their debt during a reasonable time period by reducing the interest rates for these loans. We owe it to our children and our nation to prepare for the future. We must embrace our future and make the necessary changes in our educational system that makes sense. “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future,” said Franklin D. Roosevelt, at the University of Pennsylvania, September 20, 1940. Marco Serna Candidate for Congress, District 3, NM