An Educated Citizenry Is States’ Best Shot to Create Jobs and a Better Quality of Life

Story by: James Applegate

Perhaps, as the saying goes, there are no silver bullets in life.

Today, however, the data clearly tell us that the closest thing a state has to a silver bullet for creating a successful 21st century economy and an improved quality of life—better health, lower crime, citizens who contribute—is a dramatic increase in the number of college educated people in its workforce age population. The connection between states with a more educated population and increased per capita income, tax revenues, public health, and citizen engagement, as well as lower crime, smoking and obesity rates is clear.

This is a classic win-win for states: providing greater wealth while lowering demands on public resources from Medicaid, public assistance and prisons. Many governors, legislators, mayors, county judges, and education and business leaders know this.

The data from our states, however, make clear that dramatic action is required to drive education levels from “what is” to “what must be” unless states want to be left behind in the race to succeed in this economy. That is why the Lumina Foundation, the largest foundation in the country solely focused on college access and success, is devoting its resources to mobilize states, cities and the nation around Goal 2025—to raise the percent of our workforce with a quality college degree certificate or other credential from the current less than 40 percent, where we have been mired for decades, to 60 percent by 2025.

Labor market data tells us that even by 2018 almost two-thirds of the new and replacement jobs in this economy will require some form of college education. In growing industry sectors that number is higher. A recent study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce has broken these 2018 workforce demands out by state, and industry sectors within each state. A second report from Lumina providing current education levels by state, and even county, clearly shows that most of the country is far from having the educated workforce it will need to fill those 2018 jobs. These low education levels will undercut any effort to create jobs as well because economic research makes clear that a more educated workforce is needed to increase productivity and create jobs, not just fill current workforce demands.

Employers from across industry sectors are sounding the alarm about the skills gap that is threatening their viability. Jobs are going begging. As the education level of our younger workforce has plummeted to 15th in the developed world, many are wondering if the United States can continue to provide the talent they need. The wage premium for a college degree is higher than it has ever been and growing. Unemployment rates in this tough economy, even for recent college graduates, are much less than half that for high school graduates. Economic research makes clear that a more educated workforce increases productivity and actually helps create jobs, not just fill current demands.

So what needs to be done to load and fire this near silver bullet and set a state on a trajectory to a successful future? States have some clear opportunities today to make the dramatic gains we need even in this time of very constrained resources. Here are a few.

  • Ensure successful implementation of the Common Core State Standards and assessments. The country has a once in a generation chance to finally declare that the math and language skills that a high school graduate needs to succeed in college and career are largely the same in Ohio as they are in Florida. The adoption of Common Core across the states was a historic accomplishment, but in many ways it was the easy part. Hundreds of millions of federal and foundation dollars are now being spent to ensure the Common Core assessments of the standards will be high quality, not fill-in-the-bubble tests. The hope is that states that have been spending hundreds of millions of dollars collectively on homegrown assessments will benefit fiscally as well as educationally from use of this high quality assessment. Still, much more state work is needed in support of implementation. For one thing, states must ensure higher education is engaged in the implementation of the standards, both in accepting assessment scores as valid evidence for admission into credit bearing work across the higher education system and in redesigning teacher preparation and teacher development programs to enable teachers to bring students to higher levels of achievement. Demanding full engagement of K-12 and higher education in this work will ensure alignment of learning, reduce the need for remedial education in higher education, reduce the time and cost of degrees and put students on a more certain path to college success (Click here for guides supporting strong state implementation of the Common Core).
  • Tie higher education funding to improvement in student completion. States have always funded colleges for performance. The performance focus to date has been largely on increasing enrollment. The strategy has worked. We have seen consistent enrollment increases in higher education. Unfortunately, increased enrollments have not led to the increases in degree completion we need. The “college dropout” problem has resulted in 36.2 million adults in the current workforce (22 percent of the total) having some college but no degree. Millions of these former students earned 60 credits or more but have nothing to show for it, except, in many cases, debt. Several states and systems have recognized this problem and attached significant parts of public colleges’ budgets to increases in degree production—including Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee and the Pennsylvania State University System. You get what you pay for and if you reward institutions for taking more students to success—and importantly, provide greater reward for graduating underserved students and reducing equity gaps—you are more likely to develop the workforce and citizenry you need. (Click here for a guide to increasing higher education productivity with examples of success from across the nation).
  • Use your precious financial aid dollars wisely. The federal debates over Pell Grants, loans and tax credits aside for the moment, there has been a disturbing trend in state and institutional aid programs over the last decade providing increasing amounts of limited financial aid dollars to wealthy students who can afford and will attend college anyway; this while closing out growing numbers of lower-income qualified students due to resource constraints. The latter group is much greater in numbers and their education is crucial to workforce needs. (See the analysis and the implications for policymakers from the Education Trust report “Lifting the Fog on Equitable Financial Aid Policies.” Much of this drift has been justified by the use of merit-based scholarships based on test scores, in significant part. Putting aside for the moment that these test scores highly correlated with income, the question about what constitutes merit should at least be asked. Is a low-income student who has overcome enormous barriers (poor schools, crushing family problems) to become college ready (with adequate test scores to prove it) less meritorious than a wealthy student with higher scores who has had every advantage?  Every state should identify where every dollar of state and institutional aid is going and ensure that these resources are targeting students who cannot go to college without support. This is smart education policy that will best serve to create a college-educated workforce and it is the right thing to do.
  • Align your workforce development and higher education systems. Every dollar counts. Yet at the national and state level we continue to waste millions of dollars that could produce the workforce we need through misaligned and disconnected programs across higher education and workforce/economic development systems. State leaders and employers must take the lead with these sectors to create a coherent aligned pathway for credentialed learning (certificates and degrees) that lead to employment. Michigan’s No Worker Left Behind program is an example of this type of integration. In addition, in the same way high schools should be held accountable for graduates’ success (typically college readiness and enrollment), workforce and education data should be connected to assess the impact of college degrees on graduates’ success. Soon, several states will be issuing annual reports supported by the Lumina Foundation that will show us what happened to every college graduate in the state in terms of employment and wages. These reports are intended to improve the alignment of education and workforce needs. So insist on the integration of workforce/economic development programs and higher education and use integrated data to hold everyone accountable for preparing students to succeed in this economy.
  • Raise the education levels of your current workforce. It is not just about the kids. In the large majority of states, every baby born between now and 2025 could be mentored through high school to a college degree and their workforce would still be inadequate to support a strong economy. Unless we develop strategies to bring college to our current undereducated workforce (read adults) we cannot meet the changing demands of the economy. Remember the 36.2 million adults with some college degree and no degree? Now add the 27 percent of the current workforce with only a high school diploma and the almost 13 percent who lack even that and you realize that we cannot succeed if we ignore the more than 60 percent of our current workforce that are at risk. Serving adult learners is an area where many effective practices have been identified. Some states and colleges have targeted adults with considerable success. There is no need to reinvent the wheel here. (Click here for an introduction to this work)

There are other practice and policy issues in which states, cities and colleges could and should engage to be economically competitive and support a quality of life that will keep and attract people and employers. To help with this work, the Lumina Foundation recently supported the launch of a new one stop Web resource “PolicyDirect” that provides easy to read, cutting-edge research with direct implications for policy makers.  There you will find 300 easy-to-use summaries of research highlighting critical findings that should inform policy and practice on important higher education issues such as college preparation, financial aid, productivity, and student success. Moreover, the Lumina Foundation stands ready to partner with state leaders in whatever ways are helpful to jump start progress toward Goal 2025. 

The challenge to dramatically raise education levels is urgent. The clock is ticking. Goal 2025 is an audacious goal. States and cities that embrace this goal for themselves and collaborate across sectors can achieve it and look forward to strong economic recovery and a high quality of life. The consequence of continued stagnant education levels is the painful year-to-year, hand-to-mouth existence we see playing out in too many states today.

The rest of the world is not waiting for us to wake up. It is past time to ready ourselves for the challenge, take aim at the goal of increased education attainment and fire the near silver bullet that will secure the future.

James Applegate is vice president of program development for The Lumina Foundation for Education

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