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College paves a path to prosperity and stability

Last year, the wage disparity between college and high-school graduates was the highest recorded.

College graduates make more money, significantly more money, than less well-educated Americans.

Don’t believe the hype questioning a university education’s value, insinuating that college study is a waste of time, money and effort. Go to college. A four-year college degree carries greater lifetime financial rewards than a work life anchored with “some college” or a high school diploma. In accumulated income earnings, it’s not even close.

John Van Hecke
 John Van Hecke

Recent research and analysis from the Economic Policy Institute, reported in The Upshot, a New York Times economics column, finds that college graduates make more money, significantly more money, than less well-educated Americans. We shouldn’t need a study to know that educational achievement translates into greater lifetime earnings. But, let’s be objective about this, moving from articles of faith to articles of fact requires data.

The facts are clear. Work life with a four-year college degree is more financially remunerative than a work life achieved with just a high-school diploma. Last year, the wage disparity between college and high-school graduates was the highest recorded. Four-year college grads averaged 98 percent more per hour than high-school grads. Plus, wages for workers without a four-year college degree are either stagnant or declining. That fiscal path leads to fewer choices, a declining standard of living and a dramatically elevated risk of perpetual poverty. Given this data, choosing to skip college in the belief that “it’s not worth it” is a textbook example of irrational economic behavior.

Yes, it’s expensive, but jump in

Higher education requires additional personal investment. It’s expensive. Graduating with $25,000 in student loans may appear daunting but, I’m telling you, jump into that pool. First, you’re investing in your economic future. Once you’ve paid those loans, the earnings differential is gravy. Second, the public-policy debate has it all wrong. We’re discouraging people from attending college when we should be focused on improving public financing of higher education. Minnesota benefits when everyone earns higher wages, expands the economy and creates new jobs. Minnesota doesn’t need a burgeoning underclass, we need the best compensated, most skillful, productive and adaptable workforce imaginable. That workforce will only come from improved access to affordable higher education.

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My grandfather, Harold Jones of Mapleton Township, was unapologetically pro-higher education. The Great Depression shaped his world view. College created a path to stable family and community life. You go to college, he lectured me, to make a good living. To make a better, more secure living than the farm or wage labor might provide. But attending college wasn’t an ethereal act of personal development or horizon expansion, not for my grandfather. He expected university degrees to have a practical application like teaching, engineering, medicine or practicing law, sending my mom to Mankato State for an education major.

When I told my grandfather, one college Christmas break, that I was declaring double majors in history and political science, he struggled to understand my degree’s potential application. Teaching majors teach. Nursing majors nurse. Business Administration majors work in business. What, he asked would I do with a history major?

I explained that studying history opened the world, placing people and events in context and connected the human experience across time. History, studying the past, prepared me for everything to come. But, he pressed me, what work would History prepare me to do?

At this point, I became much too cavalier. Anything, Grandpa, I said. I can do anything. I’ve regretted saying that ever since. I was raised on a farm in an era of rising prosperity. My grandfather’s farming boyhood and early adult life was just this side of poverty. He and my grandmother lived lives rooted in the real suspicion that the next Great Depression was just around the corner. They saved money in multiple banks, guarding against bank failure. They reused every consumer good in their lives. They weren’t fearful people but they were wary of the market’s cruel indifference. And, they believed in government as a force for good and fairness in working people’s lives.

A goal he understood

When I told my grandfather I wanted to work in politics and possibly in government, he relaxed. He understood. He’d still, if possible, be voting for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Laboring in that tradition was a worthy pursuit provided that I could earn a living doing it.

Drawing on his life’s experience, my grandfather never dismissed higher education, suggesting that it wasn’t worth the investment or deferred labor market entry. He observed who had financially secure livelihoods and who did not. He didn’t need wage analysis to support his observations but he would’ve welcomed the research, recognizing a university education at work.

The most enthusiastic advocates for discouraging a college degree seem to be people who most directly benefit from a growing underclass. They expect their children to minimally earn a four-year college degree while simultaneously suggesting that your kids don’t need one. That path leads to family financial insecurity. My grandfather with his eighth-grade country school education understood, very clearly, which path he wanted his family to take just as he understood that it was government’s job to make higher ed accessible to all.

John Van Hecke is the publisher of Minnesota 2020, a progressive, new media, nonpartisan think tank on whose website this commentary originally appeared.


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