College Debt Relief and Affordable Lifetime Learning Are Essential for a Thriving Economy

People need better options than a lifetime of debt because they went to college or a lifetime of stunted earning because they couldn't afford to.

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By Brent Messenger


Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

It's easy to mistake the 4.1 percent unemployment rate in the United States for a job market that is entirely in good shape. Look further and you find 40 percent of American employers report difficulties finding the skills they need in prospective employees. Sixty percent note a lack of preparation for even entry-level jobs. Beyond the current skills gap issue, the long-term prospects for many jobs is uncertain. According to McKinsey and Co, by 2030, 75 million to 375 million workers (3 to 14 percent of the global workforce) will need to switch occupational categories.

Businesses need employees with the right talent and skills to continue to grow and prosper. Skill set development and preparation come down to how we educate our current and future workforce. We also must look at the system surrounding education, and it absolutely must include the structure around student loans. College debt is an anchor that, unlike consumer spending or a home mortgage, neither spurs the economy nor addresses crucial housing needs for Americans.

Related: How Student Loans Are Crushing Millennial Entrepreneurialism

Democratize the building blocks.

The internal combustion engine was patented in 1794, but the U.S. automobile industry didn't get started until the Model T's release in 1908. It took more than a century before the mass implementation of the technology that ultimately spawned a huge number of job opportunities. Today, an innovation can create an industry and fold it up in a span of months. That innovation is likely to eliminate many jobs while creating a few.

Look no further than the World Economic Forum's Jobs report to see the impact of innovation. The report predicted that by 2020 "creativity," not a specific programming language and certainly not mastery of any particulur tool, will be among the top three job requirements. The same "hard skills" we've previously considered to be good indicators for professional success are simply less valuable in an age of data inundation joining with new technologies around AI, automation and robotics.

But how do we allow human creativity to shine through? It starts with a foundation of skills and knowledge for workers. Democratizing access to skills creates an environment for softer skills to shine through, ultimately allowing more to utilize their inherent humanity to suit a broad range of businesses needs.

Related: The 10 Unique Soft Skills Employers Desire in New Hires

Community colleges

Eloy Ortiz Oakley wrote in the Los Angeles Times that community colleges are the tip of the spear when it comes to recognizing the shift to skilled service-based industries. They are an affordable option for prospective students to develop the foundational elements that add up to a good income today and a path toward future education in the future.

In California, community college tuition averages $1,430 including fees, the lowest in the country, reflecting the emphasis on affordable education in some states. Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law in October of last year that created free first-year community college tuition for as many as 19,000 more Californians as well. Community college policy changes and affordable tuition are often a reflection of the needs and economic levels of the communities they are a part of, just like the kinds of courses offered. Oakley notes one example at Rio Hondo Community College in Whittier, where students are enrolled in a program to learn how components function within electric cars.

Related: Community Colleges and the Creation of Entrepreneurial Ecosystems

Online learning platforms

Broad education platforms like Udemy and Skillshare offer a truly democratized, affordable skill-specific education that can be accessed anywhere there's an internet connection. Their wide range of courses gives everyone the opportunity to uplevel their knowledge base for future professional demands. They also can shorten the time between getting an education and turning it into economic opportunity. This is partly because of their skill specificity, but it also has a lot to do with limiting the long-term financial commitment that befalls traditional higher education.

However, many online platforms provide a skill but not necessarily a certification or degree. These avenues may be more suited for upleveling a skill within a profession as opposed to raising employment prospects. For that, many future workers turn to four-year education.

Related: Obama Puts Down $600 Million to Train Up Your Future Employees

More education means more income but also big debts

The argument to seek education couldn't be more compelling when it comes to the raw numbers. People with an associates degree earn, on average, $6,000 more annually than those with only a high school diploma and have the lowest unemployment across all education levels. A bachelor's degree creates even more opportunity, with graduates making nearly $60,000 annually.

Even in an age of robots, the benefits of more education are compelling, but for many there is an impossible trade-off: It brings both world-opening opportunities and financially crippling student debt. The average college student graduates with more than $37,000 in debt. The 44 million Americans dealing with it cumulatively owe an astounding $1.48 trillion. That's enough to make credit card debt blush, accounting for an additional $620 billion.

Those numbers alone are shocking, but what also must be recognized is the financial ripple effects that student loan debt can create. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 30-year-olds with student loan debt are less likely to buy homes and cars -- a trend that's new and mirrors the jump in total student loan debt and defaults.

The financial handcuffs that come with education have led more than a few people to suggest avoiding college altogether. That is wrong. Building up hard skills and having a chance to develop soft skills will create workers who are far more flexible and adaptable in the workplace.

Related: 8 Hugely Successful People Who Didn't Graduate College

The United States should be pumping money and energy into creating more approachable and affordable education opportunities, from investments in community colleges and vocational programs that provide the skills human workers need to rethinking the student loan industrial complex to avoid saddling the next generation of workers with a lifelong weight of debt. Aside from benefiting workers, the uptick in skilled workers will drastically benefit those looking to hire them -- a boon to growing businesses across the country.

Making education more affordable and accessible is not the direction we're headed. The president, for his part, offered a 40 percent cut to workforce education programs, kneecapping some of the most accessible types of education in many communities, including community colleges.

Congress has offered few answers when it comes to student loan debt, but there are models out there that suggest potential solutions. Graduates in Australia repay loans automatically with payroll deductions based on income. Most Australians are out from underneath the loans within nine years. That is significant. Unlike the U.S. system, there are few middlemen involved, and loans are repaid on a sliding scale. Lower-earning graduates aren't stung by a loan that's tethered to market rates instead of his or her earnings. This in turn keeps defaults down and keeps those graduates contributing to the economy both as consumers and earners.

Creating a future-proof economy and workforce will always be a work in progress. The most sensible approach is an educational system that supports a nimble workforce and doesn't saddle its population and the economy with a massive disincentive to seek that education in the first place.

Brent Messenger

Global Head of Community at Fiverr

Brent Messenger designs and executes large-scale community engagement programs for global brands, including Fiverr, Airbnb, Lyft and former President Barack Obama.

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