The state is shortsighted if it reduces already meager support for higher education
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Why is Pennsylvania running a race to the bottom when it comes to educating our workers?
Faced with ever-mounting financial cuts emanating from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's public institutions of higher education are staring at stark choices. If the trend continues, Pennsylvania and its economy will be losers in the long run.
There is no surer investment in economic growth than preparing workers for future opportunities. Yet Pennsylvania ranks near the bottom in state-government support for higher education. With $211 million cut last year and a further reduction of $273 million announced for this year, Pennsylvania already may have reached the dubious distinction of placing dead last among the states when it comes to investing in higher education. The implications are unavoidable.
It is no coincidence that the economy in Western Pennsylvania has emerged from decades of retrenchment as its workforce shifted from one of the most blue- collar to one of the most professional in the nation. Today, over half of the Pittsburgh region's younger workers have a bachelor's degree or higher, a proportion that has been growing steadily over the last 25 years. The unemployment rate for the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area has remained below the national rate for well over five years, in no small part because workers here are better prepared to meet the ever-advancing demands of the jobs being created.
It is imperative to look beyond the jobs available this week or even this year. Workers need education and training to prepare them for an entire career. There is no forecast that will accurately predict what skills and occupations will be in demand just a few years from now. Many of the fastest-growing occupations in a decade may not even exist today, but institutions of higher education know how to give workers the tools to adapt and take advantage of future opportunities.
The earnings gap between those with higher education and those without has only been growing, a trend that shows no signs of reversing. The average lifetime earnings of those who obtain a bachelor's degree is estimated to be $2.3 million, well above the $1.3 million that can be expected for those with only a high school diploma.
But the value of higher education to workers goes beyond the considerable impact it has on wages and lifetime earnings. It also enhances job security over a career. In 2011, the unemployment rate for those with a bachelor's degree or higher was 4.3 percent, well below the 6.8 percent for those with an associate degree and the 9.4 percent for those with just a high school diploma.
In the 1980s, many of Western Pennsylvania's former blue-collar workers were not given the tools to adapt to new careers as thousands of manufacturing jobs disappeared. Many of the workers who lost their jobs when steel mills closed remained underemployed for the remainder of their careers. Pittsburgh's evolution had to wait a generation as the pipeline of training and education caught up to new demands in the workforce. Do we want to turn back the clock to where we were a quarter-century ago?
Pittsburgh is looking to a future with continued growth in health care and education, financial services, advanced manufacturing and energy -- all industries that demand ever-higher levels of education in order to be competitive nationally and globally. Imagining that a past will return where a high school graduate can expect a lifetime of secure employment at a single firm with a livable wage is a false hope. Yet it seems to be the hope behind Pennsylvania's new education strategy.
Without doubt there is need for education at all levels and from a range of public and private institutions, including technical schools. But by cutting the minimal funding the state currently provides to public higher education, Pennsylvania would cut off a lifetime of opportunities for many college-ready students who cannot afford higher tuition payments or more burdensome debt upon graduation.
It is clear who loses in a world with inadequate support for public education. The very best students will always be sought out by colleges and universities no matter their financial situation. Likewise, students with means will always be able to take advantage of educational opportunities. The students left out will be those of middle-class households, who will face fewer and more expensive options. They also will find fewer reasons to remain in Pennsylvania.
First Published March 18, 2012 12:00 am