An America built to last needs to invest in education

In his State of the Union address President Obama spoke of an America “built to last.” I am glad that the focus of policy is turning to the long run. One essential component of such a built-to-last idea must deal with education. In an increasingly global and complex economy, citizens need to have the skills to successfully participate in labor markets, not to earn low and stagnating wages but wages that allow them to be part of a solid middle class, to send their children to college, and to save for retirement.

The President did talk of education and the important role of education. But it is going to take more than education reform that allows schools to be creative in their curriculum and to reward good teachers. America needs to invest in education if it wants an economy built to last. While it is good to invite state and local governments to devote more of their budgets to higher education rather than slushing education expenses, it is important to recognize that the federal government has an important role to play to foster education. More funds to research and technology can contribute not only to support higher education but also to fuel innovation and ideas that form the basis of growth (and the growth of well-paying jobs). Good education and solid training are also at the base of innovative entrepreneurship. Access to finance has been mentioned, by the President, too, as one of the major impediments to entrepreneurship, but in my view (and according to my research), education is far more important, in particular if the entrepreneurs we aim to cultivate are innovators rather than self-employed individuals who are trying to make a living. It is also important to recognize that a good education is not built on good colleges or community colleges alone but on a strong educational system, from kindergarten to college and beyond.

President Obama mentioned that college education cannot be a luxury. But with the cost of college rising faster than inflation and faster than the growth in wages, in particular in the lower part of the wage distribution, we are headed in that direction as the purchasing power of workers is not keeping up with the cost of a college education. If we are planning for the future, it is important to find ways to make college affordable and within reach of the many families that aspire to send their children to college. As I have mentioned in many of my previous posts, a college education is often the most important investment that a person can make.

I want to end this post with a statement that President Obama made during his address and that can be summarized as follows: teachers matter. This does not require much comment as it speaks for itself. All of us can name a teacher who has been influential in our life and who has made a difference. For me, it was my high school literature teacher. Her name is Ada Pucci. Even after more than 30 years, I think often of her and of the encouragement she gave me; we have talked on the phone over the years and when I am in Italy, and I go and visit her. Teachers matter, and they matter to what students can do in the long run. They too should be part of the policy for an America built to last.