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Peter Reichard: Why should we care about educational attainment?

The person who neglects education, as Plato said, “walks lame to the end of his life.”

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake Community College graduates take a moment to congratulate their neighbors as directed by a speaker during commencement ceremonies at the Maverik Center on Friday, May 5, 2017.

Post-secondary educational attainment matters a lot. For years, Utah Foundation has been uncovering data on challenges and successes that connect directly to post-secondary educational attainment. In fact, attainment matters so much to us that we just launched a series on the topic with a report that examines strategies that can be deployed to help boost attainment levels.

What is educational attainment? In general, it is the highest level of education that a person or population has completed. Post-secondary attainment includes more than university diplomas, encapsulating educational certificates, apprenticeships, industry certifications and licensure.

You probably already care at least somewhat about increasing educational attainment levels in this state. But here are some reasons to care about it even more.

• You care about the economy. Despite having spent the past year in an unprecedented dual public health/economic crisis, the greatest challenge facing many Utah businesses is the inability to fill job openings for skilled positions, from engineering to tech to manufacturing to construction. These are well-paid jobs, and yet Utah employers can’t find qualified takers.

• You care about economic mobility. Obtaining some kind of post-secondary degree or certification is the closest thing we have to a ticket to the American Dream. Other factors, such as family stability, play into the move up the income ladder from one generation to the next. But nowadays, the way upward runs generally through our post-secondary institutions.

• You care about income inequality. The thickest line of inequality can be drawn between those with college degrees and those without. According to the St. Louis Federal Reserve, the median income for those with a two- or four-year degree is nearly twice what those with only a high school diploma earn and nearly four times what those with no high school diploma earn. For those with an advanced degree, the median income is nearly five times the median for those with no high school diploma.

• You care about state and local budgets. As the statistician Claus Moser put it: “Education costs money, but then so does ignorance.” A more educated populace means a higher earning and higher spending populace, which in turn yields a more stable tax base.

• You care about government dependency. More taxpayers with well-paid jobs means lower levels of government dependency. This allows those public funds to be deployed elsewhere.

• You care about democracy. According to the Annenberg Public Policy Center, only half of Americans can name the three branches of government – hardly a strong foundation for an electorate. More education, while not a guarantee of civic literacy, at least increases the chances.

• You care about social stability. Sly and the Family Stone, paraphrasing Martin Luther King, sang it succinctly: “Don’t burn, baby, burn / You got to learn, baby, learn / So that you can earn, baby, earn.” In the modern era, the mobs of malefactors who have caused chaos across the globe are typically fueled by ideologies of resentment. And resentment historically finds fertile ground among the undereducated and underemployed.

• You care about crime. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about two-thirds of state prison inmates in the U.S. did not receive a high school diploma.

• You care about the future. Utah Foundation research has highlighted the importance of the post-secondary attainment of parents for the next generation. In households where either parent has a college degree, the children’s performance in school surges above children in households where neither parent has a high school degree. It also leads to higher attainment, creating a snowball effect through generations.

• You care about your neighbors. A good education equips a person for a noble livelihood and supplies the thinking skills to live a noble life. By contrast, said Plato, the person who neglects education “walks lame to the end of his life.”

Peter Reichard is president of Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research organization. Reach him at peter@utahfoundation.org. Find the new report, “Beating the Odds: Post-Secondary Success for Adult, First-Generation and Lower-Income Students” (February 2021), at utahfoundation.org.

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