We Need More College Graduates

06/08/2015 01:55 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016

It is college commencement season, a glorious time of year, when spring flowers and joy are blooming on campuses across the nation.

For millions of diligent college students, hearing their names called and being handed a hard-earned diploma is a watershed moment. It is a genuine cause for celebration for students and their families.

It can also be stressful. Our students have spent several years focusing intently on their studies and routines. For many, familiar patterns now give way to uncertainty over what their futures hold.
But there is no question our graduates are significantly better off, with far greater prospects for finding a rewarding job and earning a good living, than if they had not gone to college.

And as software entrepreneur Bill Gates recently pointed out, with more than two million freshly minted graduates aspiring to join the workforce this spring, America is still far short of the number it needs to keep our economy thriving.

By 2025, Gates wrote in a recent blog post, two thirds of the jobs in the U.S. will require education beyond high school. And according to a new study he cited by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, America over the next decade will be 11 million skilled workers short of what it needs to fill those jobs.

In California alone, we are projected to be a million college graduates shy of what the state's economy will require by 2025, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, or PPIC.
A PPIC report on the issue was published in 2009, the same year I traveled west from the University of Illinois to become chancellor at the University of California, Davis. It was also a year that continued to see deep cuts in state funding for higher education in California and around the nation, forcing many colleges and universities to cut programs and reduce enrollment.

According to the PPIC study, only 35 percent of working-age adults in California will have a college degree in 2025. By then, the demand generated by our economy will need that number to be 41 percent.

At UC Davis and other UC campuses, we continue to find ways to add more students, despite the deep cuts in state funding we experienced during the Great Recession. The good news is that if the budget compromise recently reached between Gov. Jerry Brown and UC President Janet Napolitano holds up―it is due for final consideration in the Legislature by June 15―tuition will have been unchanged six years in a row.

We still have a huge need to reinvest in higher education so we can help California and America remain competitive and provide the surest path yet for millions of students to gain the knowledge and skills needed to compete in our increasingly global economy.

"A Much Surer Path to Success"

Gates, who Forbes magazine has declared the richest person in the world for 16 of the past 21 years, said something else in his blog that our college students and their families should find interesting.

Despite the fact that Gates and other well-known moguls like Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg earned their fortunes after dropping out of college, Gates said not attending or finishing college is a bad idea.

"Although I dropped out of college and got lucky pursuing a career in software," he said, "getting a degree is a much surer path to success."

I learned from my own personal experience that Gates, whose Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a generous supporter of higher education, speaks the truth.

When I was a young girl growing up on a small Greek island, I didn't dream about getting an education nearly as much as I thought about what it would take to escape the gut-wrenching poverty I saw all around me.

Our family struggled, but I went to school with kids far worse off than me. Some came to class with no shoes. Some came hungry, with no food at home.

My mother had only a 6th grade education because World War II disrupted life on our island, but she understood as well as Bill Gates that education was the best ticket out of poverty and into opportunity.

"You have to get an education," she told me time and time again. I feel blessed to have followed her advice and for her constant support. Now, as a career researcher and educator, I want to see as many deserving young people as possible have the same types of opportunities.

Public support for education is an investment in our collective future, an investment in our world. It is the best investment we can make for the lives of our children and grandchildren. It lets them know that even after the rest of us are gone, we cared about their futures to help them learn what they need to lead productive lives.

For those of us lucky enough to be participating in commencement ceremonies this spring and beyond, I hope we can all make a commitment to do whatever is necessary to bring even more students and families to these joyful celebrations.

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