Degrees and Jobs

The college thrust

JOSEPH DANIEL FIEDLER ILLUSTRATION

At Nunez Community College’s May graduation ceremony, the photograph of a chubby-cheeked toddler wearing a bow tie decorated the top of his mother’s tasseled cap. The photo’s caption “I did it for HIM” said it all about Mom’s incentive for being there.

Many female students say that they attend college to better their children’s lives, an offshoot of the typical economic reasons students enroll in college. At the end of every semester at Nunez, where I teach English, I distribute articles pertaining to increasing college enrollment nationally and prompt answers to this question: “Why are you here?”

 “To get a better job,” and “To make more money,” are quick answers. Only one in a 100 will say “to learn” or “to have knowledge.” The apparent lack of interest in the learning process once troubled me. As a baby boomer who graduated from college in the late 1970s, my liberal arts education was steeped in the idealism of the period, a time when people could still get decent paying employment without a college degree, but wanted one for its own sake.

Those days are long gone. Recent studies about college attainment and income explain in stark terms why it’s so vital for today’s adults to get a degree.

A recent Pew Research Center article entitled “The Rising Cost of Not Going to College” shows that 12.2 percent of adults between 25 and 32 with a high school degree were unemployed in 2012 compared to 8.1 percent with a two-year degree or some college and 3.8 percent with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Moreover, only 5.8 percent of college graduates in this age group and 14.7 percent of those with some college lived in poverty last year compared to 21.8 percent of people who only attained a high school degree.

Salaries are predictably higher for college graduates in the same age group – $45,500 compared to $28,000 for high school graduates in 2012. The “some college” group only earned about $2,000 more than the high school graduate group, Pew Research Center data show, but clearly they are more likely to be employed. The Pew studies also indicate that both those with at least a bachelor’s degree and “some college” are more satisfied with their employment.

Even more striking is the increase in the wage gap over the years between college-educated adults and those without a college degree. The Pew Research Center says that high school graduates between the ages of 25 and 32 who were born between 1946 and ’54, known as early Baby Boomers, earned 77 percent of the wages earned by college graduates in their age group. Today’s high school graduates who are 25 to 32 years old – Millennials – are only earning 62 percent of what the typical college graduate earns, the data show.

These numbers explain why so many politicians on both sides of the political divide are beginning to think of a college education as a basic “right” on the order of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

In May, Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Haslam signed a law that gives free community college tuition to the state’s high school graduates. According to CBS News’ website, Haslam said that the program is a “front end” investment in the state’s economic future.

Louisiana has basically offered free college tuition for two- and four-year colleges since 1998 through the TOPS scholarship program. The requirements to earn a free ride to a public college are so low that any high school graduate earning a “C” average in a college preparatory curriculum qualifies.

Even though statistics show that Louisiana is second from the bottom in the percentage of adults nationally who have a two- or four-year college degree, its percentage is growing faster than most states. A 2014 Lumina Foundation report entitled “A Stronger Nation through Higher Education” says that 39.4 percent of 25-64 year old adults in the United States have a college degree. Louisiana’s rate is 29.1 percent, which is 10.3 percent below the national average and only higher than West Virginia’s percentage. The report says that Louisiana’s rate increases to 32.6 when the core group is reduced to 25-34 year olds, an indication that past education initiatives are beginning to work.

All over the state, students are taking the TOPS college preparatory curriculum in greater numbers. According to the Board of Regents, Louisiana’s coordinating board of higher education, about 70 percent of high school graduates followed the college prep curriculum in 2013-’14, a 10 percent increase since ’03-’04. The report also says that in ’12, TOPS college prep curriculum graduates scored an average of 21.4 out of a possible 36 on the ACT college entrance test compared to an average score of 16.7 for high school graduates who didn’t take the curriculum.

The numbers are pink-tinged but not totally rosy. The state’s investment of $1.9 billion to send high school graduates to college between 1999 and 2014 hasn’t produced as many college graduates as one might expect for such expense. Not only is the state trailing 49 other states in the percentage of college graduates, Board of Regents figures show that of the 136,616 students who received TOPS scholarships between ’04 and ’13, a third lost their awards before graduating, mostly because they failed to attend college full time.

 Even more troubling is the irrational juxtaposition of increased support for TOPS and decreased support for the state’s colleges and universities. The Board of Regents says funding for TOPS has increased 307 percent over the years. Another board report says that funding to higher education has been cut 42 percent, with less than half replaced with increases in tuition.

The state’s lack of financial support for its colleges and universities diminishes the quality of the education students receive, raising the distinct possibility that the high tech companies that employ college grads in states such as North Carolina and Texas will never find their way here.

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