From the Editor: About This Special Report

Next America explores challenges in educating a nation where racial and ethnic minorities soon will comprise a majority of the workforce. Poor and minority youths can often use a helping hand. The question is when.

A child's successful education starts in preschool -- or even before.  (National Journal)

Ours is a nation of outsiders, invigorated by waves of people who begin with nothing and scrape their way to success. This has always been the grandest source of national strength and — since the days of the Know Nothing Party — of political ire. The problem now, as always, is one of assimilation: How can we bring disadvantaged young Americans into the economic mainstream?

In this edition of The Next America, a special supplement to National Journal, cosponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the American Federation of Teachers, we explore the difficulties of preparing for an economic future in which racial and ethnic minorities will make up a majority of the workforce a scant quarter-century hence.

In reporting the cover story, Janell Ross traveled to San Antonio, a vanguard of the nation's demographic future. The Latino-dominated city is trying its damndest to help its young'uns succeed as adults, starting before they're born and continuing through to high school. The life cycle of young Americans who are disadvantaged by poverty, race, or ethnicity offers multiple opportunities for someone to step in and change their lives.

The problem is this: In the real world, with the available resources so constrained, choices must be made. When is it most cost-effective to intervene? There's an answer: Early is better.

One path that no longer assures a middle-class life is relying on a high school diploma, and the educational system is responding. Sophie Quinton looks at a high school in Georgia where vocational education has been redefined. Wood shop has given way to rigorous courses — the lines between traditional academics and vocational training have blurred — that are meant to help any student find a place in a frighteningly sophisticated workforce.

Life is hard: No news there. But Peter Bell and Stephanie Stamm show (in the centerspread graphic) how much harder it is if things go badly from birth. This propels an inequality that our system of higher education is making worse, as Ronald Brownstein finds. For generations the driver of upward mobility, college has become a force for stultification. The children of the prosperous receive an elite education and an easier life, while most others — uh, too bad.

So, is higher education the problem or the cure? Click on the links at the box above right.