A parent reflects on the value of college

Last weekend I had the pleasure of hitting one of those personal milestones that brings a smile to your face, makes your heart skip a beat and makes your wallet seem a little thicker — the graduation of my last child from college.

I was not alone in marking this important passage. I was joined by hundreds of other parents whose collective joy – and sighs of relief – could be detected throughout the arena when their child crossed the stage.

Unfortunately, too few parents will ever experience the pride and happiness my wife and I felt by seeing our son graduate. That is especially true in Idaho where no more than two out of ten high school graduates finish college.

It is also unfortunate – and tragic – for the thousands of Idaho young people who do not pursue an education past the 12th grade. Studies show that over the course of a lifetime a college graduate will earn almost double what a high school graduate will earn – $2.3 million compared to the $1.3 million.

But dollars do not begin to account for the differences in life experiences that an income gap like that can create. A person who earns more money can afford to travel, buy the goods and services that help make life more enjoyable and spend their days in jobs that are meaningful, interesting and rewarding.

It doesn’t have to be this way for thousands of Idaho young people. It shouldn’t be this way. And, for the sake of Idaho’s future, it can’t continue to be this way.

Studies show that by the year 2018 more than 60 percent of the jobs in Idaho will require some level of post-secondary education. Yet right now only four of Idaho’s high school graduates go on to college and of those only two are enrolled after their sophomore year. No more than two graduate.

There are many theories why so few young people go on to college or graduate. Some say it is the cost of college. Some say Idaho’s students aren’t prepared for the rigors of college and either shy away from trying, flunk out or quit because they get discouraged. All of these explanations have merit.

But some people think there is another culprit – higher education is not part of Idaho’s culture. Too few parents believe that having their children get a college education is important or they simply abdicate the decision to their child. The thinking goes something like this: The parents don’t have a college degree and they are successful, so why should their children get a degree?

The trouble is that parents who don’t believe college is important do not see that the world and Idaho have changed dramatically since they were in school. There was a time when you could work in the mines or in the forest and earn a good, solid wage on which you could support a family. But over the past 25 years many of those jobs have been lost. Now you need to know something about computers to work in a saw mill or a factory.

Meanwhile, Idaho is suffering. The state’s per capita income is lower than any state in the nation except Mississippi. In the mid-1990s Idaho’s per capita income was 15 percentage points away from the national average – now it is 23 percent below that mark.

But that’s not all. Idaho also has the highest percentage of minimum wage jobs – 7.7 percent – in the country. Last year more people left the state than moved in for the first time since the 1980s. And, unfortunately, the demographic shift is not in our favor – most of the people leaving Idaho are young people. Most of the people moving in are older than 50.

People can disagree over whether economic development – good jobs – comes first or whether an educated populous does. In the end, both economic development and education are essential if Idaho is going to thrive in the 21st century going to thrive in the 21st Century. Without progress, we will continue to languish at the bottom of every economic and educational metric.

Good jobs are out there and go begging because American young people do not have the education or the right kind of education to fill them. A Microsoft executive recently told The Wall Street Journal that the company has more than 6,000 job openings across the country. More than half of these positions are the difficult to fill engineering, software development and research jobs. Business leaders in Idaho have those same kinds of openings and must import talent into the state because they don’t have the right kind of educated workforce.

These are all jobs that pay recent college graduates high five-figure salaries. Could you imagine how Idaho’s economic outlook could turn around if our colleges were turning out software engineers who could feed the need of these companies? We could not only supply the Idaho tech companies eager to expand, but also attract new companies that would want to take advantage of our educated workforce.

There are many things we can do as a state to get more students to attend college. But nothing is more important than the influence of Idaho’s parents. Parents must take the lead in creating a culture where higher education is valued – and expected. They need to talk about the benefits of post-secondary education from the time their kids are young to when they graduate from high school.

I was raised in a middle-class family where no one had graduated from college. But my mother always said that education was the key to a good life and she expected me to attend college. When I graduated from high school the thought of not going on didn’t even cross my mind.

It is time for all Idahoans, especially parents, to connect the dots between a post-secondary education and the economic well-being of our state and young people. No longer can we pretend that Idaho’s beautiful scenery and outdoor lifestyle will compensate for a good job and a livable wage.

Idaho parents must make going on beyond high school a cultural imperative for their children. Otherwise, our state will be stuck at the bottom of the list of states where unemployment runs high, wages remain low and poverty of life is the norm.