Education changes lives and economic futures

While the Idaho Legislature debates a big tax cut, the Tennessee Legislature is looking toward investing big time in its citizens’ future and the economic future of the Volunteer State.

In his recent State of the State message, Tennessee’s Governor Bill Haslam, a conservative Republican, accelerated his campaign to get more Tennesseans to go on to postsecondary and obtain the education that will power his state’s economy for the next 40 years.

Rod Gramer
Rod Gramer

To a standing ovation from the GOP-dominated Legislature, Haslam proposed expanding the state’s “Reconnect Scholarship” to give more working adults a chance to go back and finish their postsecondary education.

The Reconnect Scholarship builds on the “Tennessee Dream” legislation that Haslam proposed and the Legislature approved in 2014 which gives every high school graduate a chance to attend a community college or technical school tuition-free.

Since the Promise Act was approved, 33,000 high school graduates have used the program to go on and work toward an associate’s degree or a workforce-ready certificate.

Like Idaho, Tennessee doesn’t have enough workers who hold a postsecondary credential that qualifies them for one of the high-demand jobs requiring more than a high school diploma. Haslam knows that if he doesn’t fix that problem in a hurry his state will not be competitive economically.

He’s keenly aware that the No. 1 factor that drives economic vitality in the 21st Century is a well-educated workforce. Recent studies drive this point home.

Since the Great Recession, our country has created 11.6 million jobs. Of those, Georgetown University says only 100,000 went to people with a high school diploma. The Economic Policy Institute recently reported that the wage gap between a college graduate and a high school graduate is 56 percent – the largest it’s been since 1973. Someone with a college degree can earn on average $54,000 more a year than someone with just a high school education.  

Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford University, told Idaho legislators last year that if our state could improve its educational attainment to the level of Minnesota we could more than double the state’s gross domestic product. And triple it if Idahoans were as educated as the citizens of Finland.

So, while Gov. Haslam is ramping up his state’s campaign to build a more educated Tennessee, Idaho’s goal of having 60 percent of our 25-34 year olds hold a postsecondary credential by 2020 is languishing.

The percentage of Idaho high school graduates who go on after high school dropped to 46 percent in 2015. The percentage of Idaho workers with a postsecondary credential is at 42 percent – a long way from the 60-68 percent we need to grow existing companies and attract family sustaining jobs to Idaho.

Idahoans seem to agree with Haslam. A Dan Jones & Associates poll released by Idaho Politics Weekly this week said that 37 percent of Idahoans see education as the top issue compared to 4 percent who listed taxes.  

But Haslam doesn’t have to read polls to know that education changes lives and economic fortunes. His father was the first in his family to graduate from college thanks to an athletic scholarship and went on to create a successful business that gave his kids opportunities he didn’t have as a boy.

“I’ve obviously come from a blessed circumstance,” Haslam says.

Haslam is working to ensure that more Tennesseans can say the same thing someday.

Rod Gramer is president of Idaho Business for Education