Higher Education

Originally published on 6/11/2015

As we send off another class of graduates to further their education or start their careers, it’s worthwhile to consider how they’ll fare in today’s globalized economy. The employment situation has changed significantly over the past few decades. Career decisions made over the next few years will have a meaningful impact on the lives of many individuals, families and communities. College costs are high in terms of money, effort and time, but a serious investment there can pay big dividends.

Ridgefield public schools offer a high quality education, a fact recognized by recent surveys. But for the vast majority, the education Ridgefield taxpayers helped provide is merely a foundation for further studies or training.

Only three years ago, former Republican Senator Rick Santorum railed against President Obama’s plan to make post-secondary education a reality for all Americans. We hope to see less opposition to such a plan. A Pew Research study from 2012 indicated that twice as many respondents (60% to 26%) felt that colleges and universities have a ‘positive impact on the way things are going in the country.’

Many insightful observations are made about widening societal gaps; the traditional notion of a middle class – which grew mightily during the 1950’s-60’s – is under attack. People may argue about how to address this trend, but it would be a mistake to disregard it. The modern economy is increasingly selective, and the critical variable is educational attainment.

The job market is surveyed monthly from the perspective of both employers and households. Opportunities are more numerous and compensation has improved. The employment outlook for younger people has brightened, but competition has heightened as well.

A rising proportion of our nation’s employable population (250 million) has experienced some level of higher education. Fully half have attended college or earned some kind of degree. The remainder are either still in school or have stopped short of college.

The correlation between educational attainment and career success is stark. Those with more education are more likely to have a job if they desire one and significantly more confident about their future prospects than those with less schooling. The unemployment rate for the college-educated is only 3.6%; for those without the benefit of post-secondary education it is 7.9%. (Across all groups, the nationwide average is 5.4%).

The particular date that a degree is awarded matters little over the long run. Young graduates usually jump right into college at the first opportunity, even if they aren’t adequately prepared to maximize the educational opportunities. Consider the benefits of a ‘gap year,’ and recognize that schools are impressed by applicants who have accumulated some additional experience and maturity to dedicate themselves enthusiastically to their studies.

Nor should education conclude with a degree. Individuals need to keep their skills sharp; they can always access a wide array of continuing education programs, thousands of free, massive open online courses (MOOCs), and extensive resources in public libraries, including Ridgefield’s terrific, recently renovated facility.

The Ridgefield Democratic Town Committee provides this column.