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Since I finished Free-Range Learning in the Digital Age, I have wrestled with the question of just what “opportunity” means in America today. And I have concluded that current circumstances require a more expansive meaning than I previously understood. As one important example, while developing the book, I interviewed and recorded the life reality of adult learners. It was a reality in which their inherent talent, knowledge and capacity had been largely ignored by society, including colleges and employers.

These adults who had initially been unable to access and complete their higher education were victims of what I called “knowledge discrimination.” Knowledge discrimination is the bias held by employers and colleges that values where you learned something more than how well you know it. And, as I wrote, I built on the notion of a “parchment ceiling,” the requirement of a degree coupled with knowledge discrimination that limited adults’ opportunities which was first introduced by Norman Augustine in the book’s foreword.

It wasn’t always this way. But the reasons why things changed and the consequences of the changes are as complex as they were unexpected by me. As we know, despite Justin Morrill’s vision, the pathway to higher education was reserved predominantly for the wealthy, the top 5 percent, until the passage of the GI Bill. Although that 5 percent number doesn’t look good when viewed through current-day glasses, there was a critically important difference between the relationship of knowledge and jobs in 1945 and today.

As reported in the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce’s recent report, “Five Rules of the College and Career Game,” “before the 1980s, high school was enough to provide middle-class earnings for most Americans: two-thirds of jobs required workers with only a high school education or less.”

So, the 1945 economy also aligned with this picture because high school diplomas were fully acceptable for the vast majority of jobs, making the lack of a degree less significant economically.

But this congruence between high school completion and work readiness was destined to evolve and change. Between 1950 and 1980, the creation of community colleges and the expansion of state colleges and universities further extended the physical presence of affordable and accessible postsecondary opportunities. And, as higher education opportunity expanded, innovation, spawned in many cases by universities, changed the economy and the workplace.

Ironically, and largely without notice or mention, these very advances took their own toll. Learning “on the job” and other forms of noninstitutional learning that had been fully sufficient in prior years became casualties to more formal and institutionalized approaches. Knowledge discrimination and the parchment ceiling were unintended but verifiable consequences of the post-GI Bill expansion of college access.

So, the emergence of higher education as the main societal pathway to opportunity in America was an undeniably positive, powerful and dynamic driver for many people and our society as a whole.

At the same time, however, the more that higher education was available, the greater became the required connection between access to higher education and academic success as the key drivers of economic opportunity and job attainment.

And while that model worked for millions of newcomers to postsecondary education over the years, it also brought with it a hidden cost by favoring people for whom the campus-based collegiate model of participation, teaching and learning was a comfortable fit while leaving others behind.

Part II of this blog post will appear in this space next week.

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