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
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 K–12 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
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
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
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.