GUEST POST: Education beyond high school crucial in 21st-century economy

by Ohio State President E. Gordon Gee

How should we judge the worth of post-secondary education? Recent arguments suggest that the cost outweighs the benefits in this 21st century economy. That our young people would be smarter to jump straight into the entrepreneurial waters or the workforce, rather than invest in—and in many cases, become indebted by—a college education that may or may not lead to a good job. I could not disagree more strongly. Thirty-plus years of working with students — in all kinds of economic climates — tells me that education is still the smartest investment one can make. Now is not the time to retreat, but to charge ahead with determination, and with eyes wide open.

E. Gordon Gee

Let us face facts: a high school education alone is no longer sufficient. Our new knowledge economy requires more, whether it is technical education, two-year community college, four-year degree, or post-graduate study. With just a high school diploma, young people have limited education, limited experience, and limited options. They may succeed, but the odds are very much stacked against them. The U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent data (2009) prove the point: high school graduates earned an average of $30,627 per year while those with bachelor’s degrees earned $56,665. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2010 the unemployment rate for individuals with a bachelor’s degree was 5.4 percent; in comparison, the unemployment rate for those with only a high school diploma was almost double at 10.3 percent.

In our 21st century economy, education beyond high school is essential. As recent college graduates face one of the most difficult job markets in decades, those with some form of additional education compete fiercely for the available positions. Those without find themselves at a huge disadvantage.

Let us face another important fact: The costs of post-secondary education are a significant consideration for most students and their families. Institutions should expect public scrutiny regarding quality of education, graduation rates, and return on investment. Students should expect to learn, to grow, to embrace intellectual rigor.

With education, career options multiply. Life options multiply. The years following high school, in whatever educational setting, are a time for exploring interests, developing new skills, and gaining an informed understanding of society and our own role in it. One may argue that a person can educate oneself—indeed, there are still Steve Jobs stories to be told—but success is elusive at best, the exception rather than the rule. Balancing life’s challenges on the precarious beam of minimal education is a misguided mission, in my view. Improving one’s prospects with the steady foundation of post-secondary education is, by far, the surest path to realizing individual aspiration and accomplishment.