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California Focus: ‘College contradiction’ threatens state’s future

Call it the college contradiction. Just when a major study finds that California is about to fall far behind in producing the college-educated workforce that some of its biggest and fastest-growing businesses will soon need, half the state’s citizens say they don’t think a college degree brings greater success in life.

Examining the second part of that major contradiction first, information from the Public Policy Institute of California clearly demonstrates that college graduates do better in life than others, at least financially. No, material success doesn’t always produce happiness, and no one would sensibly argue that the wealthy don’t have problems.

But the PPIC analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau is clear that the more education a person has, the higher his or her annual income tends to be. Yes, there exceptions, like technology titans Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and the late Steve Jobs of Apple Corp., both college dropouts, but for the vast majority, the results are plain.

The average annual wage for someone with a graduate degree is more than $121,000, while the average bachelor’s degree holder makes more than $86,000. Community college grads average $58,000 and those who attended some college make $53,000. By contrast, high school graduates get $41,000 and high school dropouts just $31,000.

So there’s little doubt: The 50 percent who say college is unneeded for material success are just plain wrong.

But they still vote. And while the overwhelming majority of Californians in a just-released PPIC survey (79 percent) don’t want any increases in college and university student fees, no one knows where the funds to increase the number of college graduates will come from. For sure, the survey found most Californians don’t want higher taxes, even though a large majority pronounced themselves likely to vote for a higher education construction bond issue.

The PPIC’s analysis of Census figures was a foundation for testimony from the non-partisan, nonprofit institute before a state Assembly committee considering changes to California’s Master Plan for Higher Education, in place since the early 1960s.

It concluded that the state’s workforce must include 38.4 percent highly educated persons by 2030, compared with the 29.7 percent that were required in 2000 and the 35.3 percent that will be needed in 2020. Failure to place that proportion of college graduates into the workforce would likely require importing more immigrant workers for high-paying jobs in computer- and technology-related industries or moving significant plants and laboratories out of the state.

Ironically, some of the same politicians who have long decried a supposed trend of businesses doing just that – setting up new facilities in states from Texas and Idaho to the Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C. – also regularly oppose increased state funding for the University of California and the California State University system.

But the PPIC information demonstrates they can’t have it both ways – they can’t have continued prosperity without investing at least some more money to enable it.

Hans Johnson, director of the PPIC Higher Education Center, testified that the increase in demand for educated workers doesn’t come merely from high-tech employers. He said there is also increased demand for educational attainment within longer-established professions. Among nurses, for example, 57 percent were college graduates in 2000, compared with 68 percent in 2015 and even more today.

The degrees are needed both to get hired and to keep jobs long-term. Reported Johnson, “We find higher labor force participation rates, lower unemployment rates and higher wages for workers with a bachelor’s degree than for those without… overall, the premium for college graduates relative to less educated workers has grown.” And there is no sign the disparity will ever close.

But that doesn’t stop half of Californians from thinking college is unnecessary. While majorities of African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Latinos say college should be a high priority, only 35 percent of whites agree.

No one has yet studied why whites are less convinced of the value of education than others.

But the bottom line is that as long as only half of Californians think college is needed, the majority of voters won’t be very willing to tap their wallets to support it. And yet, they must if California is to prosper. That’s the very dangerous college contradiction now facing this state.

Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com.