Higher Education and Our Economy

Nov 29th, 2010 @ 2:53 pm | Author: Dr. Steve Shirley, VCSU President
Last week I attended the Annual Meeting of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU). AASCU is an association of 420 public colleges and universities focused on promoting support for public higher education while also encouraging access and opportunity of higher education for all people.

During the three days of meetings, I attended several sessions and heard from national speakers about a range of topics directly related to the current state of higher education in the United States. As you might imagine, a number of the topics focused on finances and the current state of the economy. Obviously, North Dakota's economy has bucked the national trend and coped with the economic downturn far better than most (if not all) other states in the nation. During the presentations I attended, however, the interconnectedness of our local and state economy with that of our national (and global) economies were repeatedly emphasized.

The closing keynote speaker was David Gergen, a senior political analyst for CNN, an editor-at-large for US News & World Report, and a former adviser to four American presidents. Mr. Gergen also serves on the faculty at Harvard, and, based on his credentials, is in a unique position to provide commentary on the interplay of economics, politics, and higher education in the U.S. It was clear from his talk, and by the discussion of others, that we are at a critically important time in our nation's history. The levels of debt in our federal government (along with the debt of many states and municipalities) are unsustainable and have the potential to completely cripple our economy and produce long-term devastation. Throughout his address, Mr. Gergen emphasized the value of education and its potential, unlike any other single factor in our society, to assist individuals by opening new doors and providing new opportunities. A well-educated society, coupled with the creativity, innovation, ingenuity, and research it produces, is absolutely fundamental to our nation's long-term economic success and global competitiveness.

Another session I attended further emphasized the importance of education and its vital link to economic success. The current unemployment rate in the U.S. is 9.6% (and it is only 3.7% in North Dakota – the lowest in the nation). However, in delving further into the national figures, there is a dramatic divide that is realized. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics most recent data, the unemployment rate among those with a bachelor's degree is only 4.7%, while it is 8.5% among those with some college or an associate's degree, and it is 10.1% among those with only a high school diploma, and 15.3% among those who have not graduated from high school. The evidence is clear and indisputable: the level of educational attainment has a directly positive impact on an individual's ability to succeed in our society.

The United States currently faces significant fiscal challenges to which long-term remedies must be identified. The path we are on is simply not sustainable in the long-run. However, it is also evident that a sound educational system, from pre-school to graduate school, is an important ingredient in helping restore our nation's competitiveness. In order to successfully emerge from our financial challenges, the United States must have the strongest educational system in the world. Now is not the time for being short-sighted with our educational system. Rather, we must continue to make the necessary investments required to maintain a strong system of education as it is such a key ingredient for solving many of our long-term, national challenges.