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  • Susanna Williams

It's Time for a Morrill Act for the Digital Economy

Updated: Dec 20, 2019


We need a Morrill Act for the digital revolution.

In 1862, Congress passed the Land-Grant Agricultural and Mechanical College Act- An Act donating Public Lands to the several States and Territories which may provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts. More commonly known as the Morrill Act, this was a national-level response to the major shift in the economy from agricultural jobs to industrial jobs that required a new level of formal learning and technical education. Thanks to the Morrill Act, a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology could be earned for $36 a year, or $898.74 in today’s dollars. (MIT’s tuition is now $46,704.)

The Cooperative Extension service was founded to take the academic research from the land grant universities and communicate it to working professionals in the agricultural sciences- farmers- for free. 4-H was developed as the free youth education component of that outreach. All of this was provided for free for all Americans. And, arguably, it was one of the reasons that our country was so successful during the first part of the 20th century. We invested in every part of the talent pipeline, from future workers to those preparing to enter the workforce for the first time, to incumbent workers. We invested public funds in research and development. And the entire country benefitted.

We are in the throes of a new economic revolution in 2018. The digital age began to dawn in the 1960s, but the pace of change is accelerating rapidly. Today, every job is a tech job. Unfortunately, although perhaps inevitably, training for both our future and incumbent labor force has not kept up.

Tech training programs require access to hardware and software that is constantly evolving. As more programs migrate to the cloud, hardware requirements shift less radically, but access to those programs still requires registration and licensing fees that are out of range for individuals and resource-strapped nonprofit and government organizations. Our public education system has not maintained currency with the pace of change. And employers are complaining loudly that they can’t find people with the right skills for the jobs they need to fill. The newest gap is in the artificial intelligence and cyber security sectors, where the greatest need is for PhD-level candidates in a system that isn’t producing enough talent at a fast enough pace.

Training across the board is lagging. Our land grant colleges simply aren’t engineered for the speed that digital tools require. Academia doesn’t move at the rate that business needs it to or evolve with the fluidity that the tech sector demands.

The private sector has responded to the gap in a way- for-profit “boot camps” have popped up in every population center in the country- but these time-intensive coding academies are expensive and demand full-time attendance, neither of which are possible for working adults who need to provide for families or even just themselves. Income share agreements, where tuition is garnished from pay checks once a graduate has secured a job paying a minimum mid-five figure salary, are gaining traction, but that still doesn’t solve the time-intensity problem.

While traditional higher education has slowly migrated online and moved toward competency-based models, coding boot camps are largely still place-based and modeled on the industrial age Monday – Friday, 9 – 5 work day.

None of these approaches will get us where we need to go fast enough. We need flexible, low-cost digital skill training that will allow not hundreds but millions of Americans to get the crucial education our new economy demands. We need a Morrill Act for the digital revolution.

What could this look like? What if we invested in providing high-speed broadband access to every single home and business in the United States, no matter how remote? Could that maybe cost less than buying land and building brick and mortar campuses?

Could we provide a technology training tax credit to be put toward digital devices and training?

Could we subsidize short term training programs?

Could we empower a national network of nonprofit organizations to become the modern Carnegie Library system for accessing digital technology and learning experiences?

Civic Hall @ Union Square may prove to be just such a place- a public / private partnership, physical space wired with high speed broadband and the ability to access licensed programs in a collaborative setting. The building, set to be located in the heart of Manhattan just east of Union Square, is still in the design stages, but when this digital learning center opens in 2021, it will be exactly the kind of model that other communities should adopt. Funding, however, is coming mostly from private philanthropy and corporate partners, not thinly-stretched tax dollars.

Our national economy depends on us rethinking the way we assure that all Americans have access to digital skills. If we believe that having a relevantly-skilled workforce is crucial for our national prosperity and security, this is an investment that demands public funds. It’s just that important.

#JobTraining #DigitalEconomy #FutureofWork

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