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Dr. John Ebersole Headshot

Higher Education Isn't a Political Issue

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In my previous writings and those of others, the importance of earning a postsecondary credential has been emphasized. President Obama has set a 60 percent degree completion rate by 2025. Governor Romney's platform says that "...all students should have the opportunity to attend a college that best suits their needs." Both candidates support higher education.

To punctuate the need for bipartisan support of higher education, the Lumina Foundation has taken the unique step of holding identical panel discussions at the sites of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions this year to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing America's higher education system.

Granted, the different parties may have different approaches to increasing access to higher education and reducing the cost of a college degree. So if the issue isn't a political one, how do we categorize it? As James Carville famously said during the first Clinton campaign, it's "the economy, stupid."

You won't be surprised to learn that I am an advocate for more Americans earning a college degree. However, it's not because I am president of a college. It is because I am a firm believer in the connection between education and economic prosperity -- for individuals and communities. Those nations with a highly educated workforce are more competitive in a global economy. With few exceptions, earning a postsecondary credential, (something higher than a high school diploma), means an individual has the potential to do more than entry-level or manual labor. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for a person with a bachelor's degree is just 4 percent compared with the current national rate of 8.1 percent.

There are other postsecondary credentials aside from a bachelor's degree that someone can earn to increase their competitiveness. Earning an associate degree from a community college is perhaps the best bargain in education today. They are not only relatively inexpensive to attend but they also offer great work place skills and knowledge. Professional certifications in a number of fields such as project management or the travel industry represent other avenues. The common denominator is a postsecondary credential.

A four-year degree is where most of the talk is these days, so let me point out a couple of different perspectives in regard to the value of such a degree -- one related to the individual and the other to communities. Both are from the Brookings Institution.

A little over a year ago, the Hamilton Project at Brookings added up the various expenses involved in earning a bachelor's and determined the total cost to be approximately $102,000. Assuming 18-year-olds were given the choice of putting this sum into the stock market, until they were 65, or paying for a college degree, researchers asked which would be the wiser investment. According to the Project's calculations, a college degree yields an annual 15.2 percent ROI versus the average 6.8 percent annual ROI experienced in the stock market over the past 60 years.

In August 2012, another Brookings study reported on the gap between metropolitan job openings and educational attainment. This report, analyzing data from the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas, concludes that educated workers present both short-term and long-term economic benefits to these urban settings. Changes in our economy have created a demand for an increasingly specialized workforce. Boosting educational attainment has been found to be the best way of lowering unemployment in those areas hardest hit by the economic downturn, according to the report. It goes on to note that the higher spending power that results from higher overall levels of education means more jobs for those with less education and translates into lower unemployment overall.

We can slice and dice the data in various ways, but the end result will likely be the same. A postsecondary education, and I argue that that should extend to at least a bachelor's degree, is clearly necessary to turn our economy around and provide for our children's -- and grandchildren's -- future, just as the past generation did for us.

During the previous Republican administration, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings launched a Commission on the Future of Higher Education, headed by Charles Miller of Texas. This Commission found (in 2006) that our country does not have the educated workforce that is needed to be competitive in a knowledge-based global community. This is the same conclusion that President Obama and Secretary Duncan have pointed to as they have moved education attainment to center stage in their plans to put American's back to work. Democrats and Republicans may differ as to means, but both parties know that our economy will not regain sufficient health to sustain our standard of living without a better educated workforce.