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DEGREE GOOD FOR STUDENTS AND TEXAS

Ronald C. Green, Op-Ed in the Houston Chronicle

October 8, 2010 -- Whenever I get the chance to talk to young people, I offer them this simple truth: "Your education will be your most valuable possession."

For years we have encouraged kids to finish high school, and there has been some success in lowering the dropout rate. But in Texas we are looking at a serious shortage of college graduates in 15 years, and — as reported in the Houston Chronicle Sept. 21 - that means a diminished middle class in the state.

Just 20 years ago, the majority of Texans with no more than a high school degree were part of the middle class; today, about one-fourth of Texans with a high school education are part of the middle class. An educated work force equates to higher incomes and a growing business community. And those equate to a larger tax base, which is essential to the city of Houston as we continue to grow.

What is the middle class? Typically, members of the middle class are educated and salaried professionals, semiprofessionals and skilled craftspeople. Their income ranges from $25,000 to $100,000. (This figure is a range from half of the median salary in U.S. to double the median salary.) They have a fairly comfortable standard of living, economic security and a level of education that is attractive to potential employers.

No doubt about it - the current recession has hit college graduates very hard. But it's been twice as hard on high school graduates: In 2009, college graduates 25 years and older had an unemployment rate of 4.6 percent, while high school graduates had a rate of 9.7 percent.

And this: Among young women age 25-34, those with a college degree are earning 79 percent more than their counterparts with high school diplomas; men are earning 74 percent more than their high-school-educated contemporaries.

We need to do better in our commitment to educating Texans. Only about one-third of Texans age 25-64 have either a two- or four-year college degree. That puts us in 39th place among the states, and it indicates a shrinking middle class. And yet, Texas has some of the finest and largest community college systems in the nation, and certainly we have many of the country's best public and private universities. Houston itself is, indeed, a premier college town with virtually any kind of university education available Be it private or public or religious-based, business, health care, law, social science, the arts, you name it, it's right here.

Last month, in a speech at The University of Texas, President Obama said, "Education is the economic issue of our time." He spoke of the wide variance of unemployment rates between the college educated and those who'd not been to college. He spoke of the next 10 years when eight of 10 jobs will require higher education or at the least work-force training. And of the rising cost of a higher education - rising at a rate greater than housing or transportation or even health care.

  • That high cost has to be addressed. If the cost of a college degree is prohibitive to some, we have fallen short of our promise to offer equal opportunity. Universities must do everything in their power to control the costs of educating and pass the savings on to students.
  • About one-third of college enrollees do not complete a degree - for minority students, it's about half of them. We need to target these former students, get them back on campus and collaboratively work with them through completion of their degrees.
  • The best establishment of credit is repaying your college loans, but right out of school, that can be difficult with substantial monthly payments. We should stretch these payments out, at reasonably low interest rates and, in some cases, defer significant payment until a certain salary level is attained.
  • Major industries benefit from an educated workforce, and many of our large companies are quite generous in funding scholarships. But there's room for more investment in students, whether through individual scholarships, endowments or assisting in the repayment of loans.
  • We should fast-track certain degree programs or individualize fast-track programs for students anxious to begin their careers in three years. And I want to emphasize this fast-track concept for community colleges' vocational and certificate programs. At about one-tenth the cost for tuition and fees versus private colleges, our community colleges are terrific values.

Working together, our university leaders, Texas state legislators and our business community can tackle this challenge: graduate 30,000 more college students each year than are graduating now. That's a tall order. But the benefits are worth it. College graduates are more likely to vote, invest, have pensions, have health insurance, buy property and live healthy lifestyles. That's good for them and their families. And good for Texas.