Underfunding higher education, lawmakers undercut job creation

07/14/2014 10:30 AM

07/15/2014 1:56 PM

Let us get to an important money issue at the outset: College graduates make a lot more money over their lifetimes than individuals without an undergraduate degree.

The median income stands at a cool $1 million differential, according to “Ivory Tower,” a new documentary on the condition of higher education in America.

That is a chunk of change for young people as they consider one of the most important decisions they will make.

The diploma can, and should be, a ticket to the middle class, the status that so many Americans strive for. Yet despite the advantage a college degree affords, it has become beyond the reach of many young people. Especially hard-hit are those from low- to middle-income families.

One factor driving this problem is a marked decrease in state support for higher education. Since 1978 that support has plummeted 1,020 percent, the largest drop in any U.S. goods or services.

In Kansas, the share of state support has followed this trend since the mid-1980s.

As state support of higher education expenses dwindled, more of the burden shifted to students and their families. Tuition has escalated and student loans have put many college graduates deeply in debt.

Indeed, that debt is a daunting economic problem with economic consequences.

The outstanding debt has topped $1 trillion — that is more than is owed for credit card and auto loan debt, The Associated Press reported earlier this year. Overall, there are 37 million borrowers with outstanding loans.

Many of these borrowers have moved back home to ease their obligations. This is diverting money that ordinarily would be spent on houses, home furnishings and other consumer goods. By one calculation, the $1 trillion-plus student loan debt could leave the borrowers with a lifetime loss of $4 trillion.

The inadequate funding of higher education has other serious implications and comes at a crucial time in a competitive global economy.

Right now there is a shortage of employees in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, according to a study cited in The Kansas City Star earlier this month.

That study, by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, shows that the need for STEM workers is on the rise, including in this area. It can take up to 12 weeks to fill positions, or longer, at the University of Kansas Hospital, a spokeswoman there said. At times the process can take a year.

The story also noted that significant math and science education is needed in 75 percent of the most rapidly growing job pools.

Many politicians claim they want to create more employment opportunities. But in underfunding higher education, they undermine their own policy objectives.

Sad to say, there is a disconnect here. What good does it do to create more jobs if there are not well-educated employees to fill them?

Bob Sigman, a former member of The Star’s Editorial Board, writes monthly.

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