Dec 19th, 2005 @ 10:32 am | Author: By Ellen-Earle Chaffee
During the holiday season all of us are much more aware of those who are less fortunate. Everyone cares, I think. And many give mightily to help, year round.

According to two simultaneous and independent national reports, the economic future of our country depends heavily on how much we increase our efforts to help the less fortunate. In other words, helping them is now a matter not only of humanitarianism, but also of sheer economic self-interest.

"Giving a fish' is worthy, but it is far from enough. Our future depends upon "teaching people to fish." We all need each other, and we need each other to be as strong and productive as possible. Until we create a public policy environment like we had before about 1980, however, we will not succeed.

There are two key points to the reports. First, both the US and our state will grow to the extent that we have and can fill high-wage, high-skill jobs. Achieving that requires everyone to pursue education to the upper limit of their ability, without regard to their economic, social, racial, or ethnic status.

Second, the nation and North Dakota are headed the wrong way, toward lower educational attainment rates. The populations that are growing are those least likely to pursue education, and public policy has all but abandoned them. Federal aid has diminished and shifted from grants to loans; aid programs help middle-income students more effectively than low-income students; state financial aid has slackened; with reduced state subsidy, tuition rates have risen sharply. According to one report, "Higher education is being segregated along divides of economic class and race/ethnicity."

"The US lags behind other countries in the attainment of college degrees among the young workforce," says one report. Canada has the highest international rate of 25-34 year olds with 2 years or more of college – the US has only 77 percent as many. Even among white non-Hispanics, the rate is only 81 percent compared to Canada, and for all but Asian-Americans, the rate is far lower than that.

What about North Dakota? We have more high school graduates but fewer college graduates than the US average. Twelve percent of us live in poverty. Our average family income is 82 percent of the national average. A number of schools have high percentages of children who qualify for free/reduced school lunch – including some near Valley City.

The fastest growing youth population in North Dakota is Native Americans, who have a relatively low rate of college completion. In addition, our state has many refugee families with children. That is, part of our state's future depends on people who are handicapped by their circumstances, social support, funds, or language skills. If this is true in North Dakota, imagine how much more true it is in other states.

"If current educational gaps remain, there will likely be a decline in personal income per capita in the United States," says one report. It continues: "Education is one of the most effective interventions for improving our social and economic status for individuals, communities, states, and the country as a whole. Given the changing nature of the marketplace, the high school diploma is no longer sufficient for individuals seeking good jobs or communities building a vibrant economy."

Teach people to fish. Encourage and support education at all levels. Support scholarships, education-minded candidates for public office, and education-friendly public initiatives. A positive future for you, your children, and grandchildren depends on it.

"Segregation of Higher Education Enrollment by Family Income and Race/Ethnicity." Postsecondary Education Opportunity, No. 160, October 2005.
"Income of U.S. Workforce Projected to Decline IF Education Doesn't Improve." Policy Alert. The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. November 2005.