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Column: Education increases students’ living standards

Lou Glazer

By far the most reliable way to raise household incomes in Michigan is increased education attainment. The data are clear: the higher one’s education attainment the more one works and earns. The power of education attainment in raising one’s income has been growing for decades.

College attainment is also the best predictor of whether a state is prosperous or not. Of the top 15 states in per capita income three are energy driven, of the other 12 all are in the top 15 in the proportion of adults with a four-year degree or more. It’s no coincidence that Michigan in 2015 was 32nd in per capita income and 32nd in the proportion of adults with a four-year degree or more.

The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce reports of the 2.9 million net new good-paying jobs –– those that pay at least $53,000 a year –– added during the first five years after the end of the Great Recession, 2.8 million went to those with a bachelor’s degree, 152,000 to those with some college or associate’s degree and 39,000 fewer with a high school degree or less.

And it’s all not in STEM occupations. More than 1.9 million net new high-wage jobs were in managerial, professional, sales and office support occupations –– the kind of jobs filled largely by liberal arts and business majors.

Clearly not all good-paying jobs require a four-year degree. There are many good-paying jobs that can be obtained with an associate’s degree or occupational credential. But the preponderance of good-paying jobs are going to those with four-year degrees or more.

The odds are great that the income gap by education attainment will continue to widen. Those with the agility and ability to constantly switch occupations will do the best in a labor market characterized by accelerated creative destruction.

Add to that increasingly the ability to be your own employer, find good-paying work with good benefits, and manage your own finances. These are the kind of skills that are developed best by earning a four-year degree, particularly in the liberal arts.

Unfortunately, Michigan is a national laggard in education attainment. Consistently ranking in the 30s among states in the proportion of adults with a four-year degree or more and even lower in K-12 student achievement.

Many believe Michigan’s low student achievement is largely a result of what children bring with them to school, not poor schools. That family and neighborhoods trump schools. Families and neighborhoods, of course, matter.

But the reality is, across the country, there are many early childhood programs (both home based and center based), K-12 school districts (both traditional public and charter), and higher education institutions that are demonstrating that quality education can get high student outcomes no matter what the student’s background.

One can make a strong case that Michigan has a human development system that tolerates a high level of student failure. Too many kids leaving early childhood programming not ready for kindergarten; way too many students leaving high school not ready for post-secondary education; far too many who enroll in post-secondary institutions failing to earn a degree or even a meaningful credential. If anything the performance of the adult training system is even worse with very low completion rates and many who do complete not finding good-paying work.

We need to both raise the bar so that all education institutions are accountable for meaningful success of their graduates and that those held most accountable are those in charge. Policy incentives should drive — not discourage –– all education providers to serve well children growing up in non-affluent households. The reality is there is no path back to a rising standard of living for most Michiganians that is not built on a foundation of high quality education for all children from early childhood through college.

Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Futures Inc.