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As if Your Life Depends on It

Our lives depend on improving our education and health. Why aren't we acting like it?

Our lives depend on improving education and health. Why aren't we acting like it?

What exactly do our lives depend upon? Water and oxygen are obvious. If we run out of these, none of us will last very long. It’s a supply and demand issue, which is felt acutely. It’s a need that can’t be ignored.

Unfortunately, we seem to be forgetting that our lives also depend on health and education. For the first time in centuries, America’s youth are on their way to becoming less educated and face less healthy and shorter lives than their parent’s generation. In the land of opportunity, how could this be?

Health is suffering. The prevalence and severity of obesity and other unhealthy habits are so great that diabetes, heart disease, kidney failure, and cancer are striking at younger and younger ages. Making matters worse, the promise of continued progress and breakthroughs in cures and treatments is waning. Last year, only 25 new drugs were approved in the United States. That’s less than half the number approved in the mid-1990s.

Education is slipping too. Even though the best jobs now and in the future require higher education, half of students who enroll in college are dropping out. Built a half-century ago and largely resistant to change, higher education is no longer serving the needs of today’s students and workforce.

While it may sound grim, there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful. We’ve had the extraordinary privilege of working on pioneering efforts to take innovative health and education solutions farther, faster. Smart people and forward-thinking leaders are forging new connections and new strategies to increase the number of college graduates prepared for career success and deliver breakthrough cures and treatments to patients. It isn’t easy, but we’ve got plenty of motivation.

Imagine the quantum progress we could make by lifting the skills of a whole new generation through greater success in college. That’s what happening in several places around the country. Innovations in higher education are providing opportunities where, when, and how students need them—online, in the workplace, and during convenient hours. It also means funding colleges in ways that reward their role in helping students complete degrees, not just enroll. We’re not talking about just four-year degrees, but new certificate and degree programs that connect to rewarding jobs in increasing demand—with many of them in health care. And highly-educated students will surely become more young scientists and doctors in the future, particularly in communities of color.

Achieving medical breakthroughs to improve America’s health will certainly require more college graduates prepared to solve and invent, but equally important is a new way of operating in research and discovery. We can follow the lead of trailblazing patient organizations that are replacing profit-driven risk intolerance with bold new partnerships that bridge the divides between government, academia, pharmaceutical companies, and philanthropy—bringing together in new ways the best minds and research. With the incredibly rapid deployment of social networking, we are also seeing the emergence of an open source approach to sharing data and discoveries that could help to save lives by saving time. Sometimes it really is just a matter of getting out of our own way.

As policy wonks who have worked at every level of government, we are struck by how often the most obvious solutions are missed. Consider our nation’s demographic destiny: What could be more conspicuous than who we are born into this world to be? The 2010 Brookings Institution’s “State of Metropolitan America” report shows a nation in the midst of massive societal change. Population growth is nothing short of brisk and will help support an increasingly aging population.

What’s more, the under-18 population in most of America’s metropolitan areas is now majority non-white—a bellwether of the non-white majority we will become over the next 30 years. In a fiercely competitive world, this growth and diversity could be our nation’s best advantage. Populations among rising nations like China remain relatively homogenous, and established competitors like Japan, Britain, and Germany are either growing slowly or declining.

Our lives depend on vibrant education and health. Let’s start acting like it. Then we will unleash greater prosperity and vitality in our own homes, neighborhoods and around the world. It’s an exciting time and some encouraging progress is emerging to build on and learn from. We look forward to sharing these innovations in health and education, and to hearing your responses and ideas.

This is our future—let’s seize upon it and make it better.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user borman818.

Terrell Halaska, Kristin Conklin, and Michael Manganiello are founding partners of HCM Strategists, a Washington, D.C. public policy and advocacy consulting firm.

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