Dr. Eduardo Padron

By:Phil Lawson Issue:Biennial of the Americas 2010 Section:The Americas Roundtables

Education is a Matter of National Security

Eduardo Padron

Miami Dade College is the largest institution of higher education in the United States and enrolls and graduates more minorities than any other college or university in the country. More than 170,000 students attend the state supported college that has eight campuses and numerous outreach centers. Sixty percent of the students come from low income families; 38 percent at poverty level, but staff at the institution help students shift from a “right to fail” mindset, to a “right to succeed.”

During the Biennial discussion on July 6, Dr. Eduardo Padrón, president of the college, expressed belief that, “Education is an issue of national security,” and he reiterated his concerns during our interview. He said we need to adjust our priorities when comparing the costs of education to incarceration, just in the state of Florida. He said that the traditional K-12 education of a child costs taxpayers about $6,000 per year; average university costs for each student is about $12,000 per year; but the cost to incarcerate a person costs more than $30,000 a year.

“We need to make sure that we set our priorities right,” Dr. Padrón said. “Education in the 21st century is the most important industry… We know that people who do not get educated today are destined to a life of poverty… flipping burgers at ‘you know where;’ making minimum wage and not being able to sustain a family.”

Q: Is the challenge that we are facing—this "achievement gap"—an academic challenge about how to teach better or does it involve other aspects?

A: It is much more complex than that. The main problem is the deficit of understanding that permeates our society today, from the highest levels of policymakers to families.

During much of the 20th Century in America, most people who lived the American dream—to get a job that would allow them to get into the middle class—had work that involved their hands. Today, with the knowledge economy, that has totally changed. Manufacturing and manual labor jobs are no longer the majority. The skills that are needed today are different and because of that, not only has schooling become more difficult and the learning process more demanding, but we need to make sure that we provide access to the masses if we are going to give them a fair chance to be able to participate and to join the middle class.

We have a problem right now—I think this is a transitional problem—where for the first time this generation is going to be less educated and have less of a standard of living than the generation that preceded them. That’s a real challenge. In order to get the high-wage, high-skill jobs that are in our society today, kids need to go to college—they need to get the skills that will prepare them for those jobs.

When you look at unemployment statistics today, what you realize immediately is that people without a high school diploma represent three and four times the number of unemployed than the people with baccalaureate degrees. If you look at jails today, 90 percent of the people incarcerated are people who are high school dropouts. Every measure indicates that a lack of education is the main problem.

For us to be able to compete in the global economy, for us to be able to retain our position of leadership in the world, we have to wake up and make education a priority. And families need to understand that.

Q: How do you engage families beyond the traditional means?

A: We all have to collaboratively work together.

As I finished up the interview with Dr. Padrón, Diana Campoamor, President of Hispanics in Philanthropy, walked up to embrace him. And then she proudly exclaimed, “By the way, I am a product of Miami Dade Community College and I am on the next panel! If it hadn’t been for Miami Dade, I wouldn't be here.”