Friday, June 8, 2012

The economyís message: higher education isnít optional

If the U.S. economy had been invited to speak at high school graduation ceremonies around the country, the message would have been gloomy for any grad not planning to go to college or get additional technical training.

Of course, the economy can't stand before a podium, wear a cap and gown, or accept an honorary diploma. But it speaks in a loud voice.

At a time when some people are questioning the value of higher education, the economy is speaking clearly. High school graduates and their families, while rightly proud of passing a milestone in getting a high school education, must listen closely.

The economy is saying that high school diplomas aren't what they used to be. It's saying that high school graduates need more education to get ahead of a trend that is leaving them jobless with poor prospects for the future.

High school graduates used to be able to get jobs that would bring them and their families a comfortable life. Shifts in the global economy in which companies moved manufacturing jobs in the U.S. to lower-wage workers who receive fewer benefits have changed all that. The near-crash of the nation's economy in 2008, whose effects linger on, made matters even worse with college grads competing for jobs once held by high school grads.

This week, the Heldrich Center at Rutgers University released a survey of those who received high school diplomas from 2006 to 2011 that showed that only 27 percent have full-time jobs, 15 percent are working part time and nearly 30 percent are unemployed.

Those with jobs make a median of $9.25 per hour, just $2 an hour more than the federal minimum wage. Even those with a job are just a few paychecks away from poverty.

This is not by choice.

Just 15 percent of those surveyed said they were not interested in going to college. A whopping 70 percent said they know they must have a college education to get ahead. Most of those who did not attend college or started and did not finish said they couldn't afford it or couldn't attend because of the demands of taking care of themselves and family members.

The economy is saying that not having a college education is not an option any more. A college degree or technical training beyond high school has become a requirement to enter the work force.

Nationally, the unemployment rate for college graduates in May was 3.9 percent compared to 8.1 percent for everyone with just a high school diploma.

The economy's message is sobering. Not only does the nation need to produce jobs, it needs to produce young people with enough education to fill them. Doing otherwise is too disturbing to contemplate.

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