Class Blog: Day 4, Education

Guest Blogger:

Pat Lemieux, BRLI Class of 2016
Corporate Events Director, American Heart Association

Day 4 of our BRLI experience started off with promise and copious amounts of bacon. We descended upon an unsuspecting Eastern Maine Community College ready for breakfast and to learn. The theme of this day would be education.

Going in, I thought we’d spend our day listening to many of the local academic institutions puffing up their chests talking about how great they are. Honestly, I’m not sure our group would have been interested or taken kindly to that. Luckily that was not the case. Those we spoke with were more thoughtful than that.

We hear in the media almost daily that the education system in America is broken. There is a wealth gap preventing many from reaching the dream of higher education. That a college degree is no longer worth the paper it is printed on and not worth going into 6-figure debt to obtain.

That high schools are failing in proper career development and the American society is no longer interested in financing the education of future generations. While these conversations are happening, those who came to talk with us articulated these issues and also showed clear examples of how these so-called “gaps” are being addressed with some non-traditional thinking.

For me, the refreshing part of our conversations was the notion that there is no one-size-fits-all anymore. We have seen technology become the major disruptor in the education system over the past 15 years. Rather than bury their head in the sand, many are willing to talk not only about the changes that have been made but those that are still to come.

One of those notions is that blindly attending college is not a particularly good choice. As a society, we no longer want to incur the debt that comes along with that sort of uncertainty. Brewer High School and the United Technology Center are addressing this head-on by providing serious career and interest exploration starting in grade 10.

These students have three years to test out different career paths and emerging technologies, all with the hopes of helping them make more educated decisions. We saw many students who are taking college-level courses while still in high school, learning the skills-based practical applications of their course work, taking internships, and selecting community college options. All to help lessen financial burdens and eliminate risk from the largest decisions they will have to make at the age of 18.

Still, the college panel composing of Husson University, Unity College, the University of Maine Augusta at Bangor, and Eastern Maine Community College articulated the value of their programs, while also fully recognizing the effort they are putting into providing quality education at affordable prices using emerging technologies.

To me, all of these schools appear to be growing successful because of their ability to niche down and be a specific thing to one target group. Two are targeting non-traditional students and those looking to stay close to home. One is directly targeting out-of-state students who have a passion for biological studies and environmental science.

Husson, the biggest of the 4, has 6 specific course tracks that produce nurses, physical therapists, and media production professionals among other things. It seems in talking with these schools, that the idea of large, vanilla, “everything to everyone” schools is a fading notion that may not survive the next several decades.

Though steps are being taken by those we spoke with, it was clear from our morning panels that there are still gaps in our education system. Funding, regulations, and a broken standardized testing system all seem to impede the transition from high school to college. Internships, economic disparities, and increased international competition are taking their toll on the transition from college to a professional career.

That is why for many of us the tour of the United Technology Center (UTC) was a highlight for the day. Not just because we got to play with simulators and look at cool engines, but because we could see how this school was looking at the preparation of students differently. On a shoestring budget, they provide advanced, skill-based training and real-world application of education.

People graduating from this program appear to already have a specific direction for their future education. This can help to reduce expenses while raising the possibility that they will find happiness in the career path they are choosing.

In many ways, the UTC is helping students hedge their bets against the uncertainty of the future. To me, it felt as though many of us could have used a program like this when we were in school, and are glad they exist now.

I left the day having a better understanding of the problems the education system has. Some won’t be resolved for a decade and some never will. But at least there are trailblazers out there cutting a way through the forest. In time, hopefully, several paths with emerge from these efforts.