Panel Urges Making Lifelong Learning Easier

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Now that most Americans are completing high school, the nation needs to make it easier for people to continue their education in college, says a report that was due out this week from a national commission on lifelong learning.

Eighty-two percent of Americans over the age of 24 had a high school diploma in 1995, compared with just 24 percent in 1940, according to "A Nation Learning: Vision for the 21st Century," released by the Commission for a Nation of Lifelong Learners.

"It is now time to increase learning opportunities to two years beyond high school," the report concludes.

"If you're out of school, basically you have to pay for education on your own," said Pamela Tate, the president of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning in Chicago. CAEL is one of four organizations that formed the commission in 1995 with a $1 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

The federal government doesn't have to "out and out pay for" the college education of every American, said Ms. Tate, but it could make some policy changes that would result in more adults continuing their education.

Among the report's recommendations:

  • The federal government should extend financial aid to part-time students. Now, to get a federal college loan, a student must be enrolled at least half time.
  • The government should make income-tax relief for college tuition a permanent part of the tax code and extend it to graduate study.
  • Institutions of higher education should make lifelong learning more convenient, such as by providing courses on-line.

High Schools' Role

While the report focuses on education for adults, secondary schools also have an important role in fostering lifelong learning, says Frank Levy, a professor of urban economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a co-author of the widely discussed 1996 book Teaching the New Basic Skills. ("Book Sparks Debate Over Necessary Job Skills," Jan. 29, 1997.)

"The kids that have the most trouble completing postsecondary are the kids that enter postsecondary with the weakest skills," he said in an interview last week. "The conclusion you want to draw is that you need to both beef up high school and worry about postsecondary opportunities."

Mr. Levy and other experts listed several ways that high schools could help students develop an attitude of lifelong learning.

Teachers can structure lessons in a way that show how approaches to problems change over time, Mr. Levy suggested. Teachers can also invite guests to talk to students about what new skills they've had to learn over the past 20 years, he said.

"You need to convince the kids, 'This did not just happen to this person. This is going to happen to you,'" he added.

Bret Lovejoy, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based American Vocational Association, said vocational curricula usually do a better job than a general high school curriculum in teaching students that they'll need to continually update their skills.

Vocational students are typically required to set goals that will meet employers' standards and to demonstrate in portfolios how they plan to continue to learn in their subject area, Mr. Lovejoy said.

Teachers can relay to students demographic information about how the world is changing, said Timothy Dyer, the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va. Students should know, for example, that it's unlikely a person will work for the same employer or do the same kind of work for his or her whole life, he said.

In addition, "teachers have a responsibility to make their subject relevant," Mr. Dyer said.

Copies of the report are available by calling Regents College of the University of the State of New York at (518) 464-8524.

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