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A Vision for the 21st Century
Higher education must adapt to the information age

By Gary Locke

YOUR ENTIRE ADULT LIVES will be lived in the new millennium. You are graduating from high school in the 20th century, but you will graduate from college in the 21st. And many of you will be attending colleges and universities that are on the brink of a difficult transition -- a transition from educating people for the Industrial Age, to educating people for the Information Age.

There is a lot of very complex, sophisticated economic theory about the difference between the Industrial Age and the Information Age. But I recently heard a little story that explains it in terms everyone can understand.

It seems that a few years ago, Dutch Hayner -- who, as some of the legislators here know as the husband of a former Senate majority leader -- ran into a close friend of Bill Gates. At that time, Microsoft stock had just gone on sale to the public for the first time.

So Dutch asked his friend if she thought he ought to buy some Microsoft stock. And she said, "Oh no, I don't think so. They really don't have any assets to speak of. All they have is what's in their brains."

That was spectacularly bad advice. And it was bad advice because it was investment advice for the Industrial Age, not the Information Age. It was advice from the era when wealth came from land, from natural resources like timber or fish or oil, from factories, or from having a large pot of money to invest in those resources.

In the Information Age, the primary resources that will drive our economy will be knowledge, creativity and imagination. That is very good news for young people like you.

But all the college professors and administrators you'll encounter in the next few years may not understand this historic change. And those who do understand it may not recognize how dramatically a knowledge-based economy will affect what you need to learn, and when you need to learn it.

The traditional pattern of education is that you graduate from high school, then you graduate from college, and then your education is complete. But your education will never be complete.

That doesn't mean you will have to sit in a classroom until your hair turns gray. In fact, people may actually spend less time in classrooms, because learning will be available in many other formats. You might take a course that's available on a CD-ROM, or sign up for on-line tutoring from a teacher or a professional who lives and works in another state or another country.

You might participate in seminars at your workplace, or at a community center. Or you might learn by rotating assignments from one department of a company to another. Where you live -- even if you live in Forks or Zillah -- won't be a barrier to learning, because technology will make both teachers and knowledge available worldwide. So you might take a course from a university in Japan or China or Belgium.

How and where you learn will matter far less than what you learn.

In our K12 system, we're just now beginning to hold both students and schools accountable for meeting tough new academic standards. This means that your little brothers and sisters won't be able to get high school diplomas just for sitting through 12 years of class. They will have to prove that they have met specific academic standards for math, science, communication, and other subjects.

That is called "competency-based education." It means we judge the quality of an educational experience by what skills and knowledge students really learn -- not by how long they spent in class, or by the prestige or reputation of the school or the teacher.

The idea of judging the quality of education by what students actually learn is coming soon to a college near you. And it will dramatically change the way we think about higher education.

When the focus of education is learning -- not prestige or academic pedigree -- the way we think about the cost of education also will change.

For most people, college is paid for by a combination of tuition dollars and taxpayer dollars. Those two sources of funding represent the balance between each student's personal responsibility for his own education, and the public's interest in having well-educated citizens and workers. Both of those sources of funding are very limited.

During the next few years, the portion of the fund that is provided by the taxpayer is going to be stretched beyond the breaking point, for three reasons: First, we'll have larger and larger classes of graduating high school seniors during the next few years -- the famous baby boom echo; second, a growing number of older adults also will be taking college classes to learn new skills, change careers or just keep up with changes in their fields; and third, all of us will need more knowledge, and therefore greater access to learning.

Greater demand for learning will mean fewer tax dollars per student. And that, in turn, will mean either that students pay more, that we shut more people out of the system, or that we find ways to make learning less expensive.

Some enterprises are already finding ways to lower the cost of learning. They're offering college classes on the Internet, and starting private, no-frills courses tailored to the needs of niche markets, such as mid-career professionals who want MBAs. They're offering learning in affordable, bite-size pieces, when and where people need it.

In the next few years, the marketplace for adult education will offer an ever-wider array of choices like these, and the long-standing monopoly of today's colleges will be shattered.

In addition, a society that values competence, rather than educational brand names, also will value what people learn on their own. If you can show a prospective employer that you can produce sophisticated computer graphics, it won't matter whether you learned it at a prestigious art school or on a computer in your garage. What will matter is that you can demonstrate your competence. And what will matter even more is that you can demonstrate your capacity to build on what you know -- to create products out of the raw material of knowledge, and to create new knowledge.

This explosion of new ways of learning is just now beginning. So you enter the world of adult education at a very difficult moment. What you need and what our higher education system provides may not always match. For instance, most higher education is structured on the premise that you will choose one major because you will have one career. But you're likely to have multiple careers -- in fact, a lot of us already are leading multiple-career lives.

Life can and will take you to all sorts of unexpected places in the 21st century, so you need a basic education -- an operating system, to put it in computer terms, that serves as a platform for all sorts of new software.

To help you get what you need, I want to offer just three basic suggestions for being successful learners in the 21st century: First, be an informed, careful consumer of education. Shop for quality -- for real learning -- not designer labels; second, think long-term. Think of yourself as a perpetual learner, and plan to buy the education you need, when you need it, for your whole life; and third, push the higher education establishment to meet your needs. As students, you can do this from the inside. Your fresh young minds are free from the deep ruts of entrenched habit that sometimes prevent people from recognizing opportunities for change and improvement.

In many ways, you can see the 21st century more clearly than your elders can, because more of it belongs to you. And you can help us see what our higher education system needs to do in order to transform itself into a high-tech, learner-centered system of perpetual learning for every adult.

We also need your insights on what it will mean to be an educated person in the Information Age.

We want new technologies to help us build a more compassionate, more democratic society -- a society where families are strong, where communities are vibrant, and where the economy and the natural environment are healthy. We have to educate ourselves in ways that will make that happen, and your generation must help to blaze that trail for those who will follow you.

And while you push for transformation from the inside of our colleges and universities, I will push from the outside. I've asked a group of this state's smartest people to envision what our postsecondary education system ought to look like in the year 2020, and they will unveil their ideas this fall.

Those ideas will be the basis for my agenda for change in higher education. And they will undoubtedly be the basis for a major public conversation about learning for life in the 21st century. I hope that all of you -- and your parents, teachers and principals -- will help lead that conversation.

Gary Locke is governor of Washington. This article was adapted from his speech to The Washington Scholars, a group of the state's highest-ranking high school graduates on April 27, 1998.

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