According to a study released by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce in 2015, 71 percent of Kansas jobs will require applicants to have some form of postsecondary education by 2020. Georgetown released this projection for every state in the country, and Kansas is tied with Nebraska and Oregon in sixth place – an indicator that the workforce in our state emphasizes postsecondary education to an unusual extent. This is one of the reasons why the Kansas State Department of Education is right to make postsecondary attainment a core focus of its assessment of student success.
Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson explains why high school graduation rates don’t give state officials the information they need to determine how well students are prepared: “It’s not just enough to graduate students. We have to graduate students with the skills needed to be successful long after they leave our system.” This is why postsecondary completion/attendance is one of the outcomes that will be evaluated under the new Kansans CAN approach to education in the state. The goal is to reach a “postsecondary effective rate” – the proportion of a senior class who have either received a postsecondary degree or who are still enrolled after two years – of 70 percent to 75 percent.
By comparison, the postsecondary effective rate of the cohort that graduated in 2010 was only 44.6 percent – a number that’s far too low to meet the needs of the state’s workforce.
All of that said, we can’t ignore the cost crisis that college students face in the U.S. The student loan debt clock is approaching $1.5 trillion and the cost of tuition at public four-year institutions has increased almost fourfold since 1974. Just last month, the Kansas Board of Regents approved tuition increases ranging from 2.5 percent to 2.9 percent at the state’s six public universities. In just over a decade, tuition has spiked by 44 percent at KU and K-State, which means the cost of higher education has risen at twice the rate of inflation. This has been the case across the U.S. since the 1970s – tuition has consistently outpaced inflation, and the trend is set to continue. In Kansas alone, the average level of student loan debt is more than $28,000.
With so much grim news about the cost of higher education, it’s unsurprising that some students think they’d be better off finding work straight out of high school and pursuing on-the-job training. However, the numbers just don’t agree with that approach.
First, although 71 percent of jobs in Kansas will soon require some postsecondary education, half of those jobs will only require associate’s degrees (which are far less expensive). Second, the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics demonstrates that earnings and employment rates increase dramatically with greater education. For example, while Americans who hold bachelor’s degrees enjoyed a 2.7 percent unemployment rate in 2016, that rate almost doubles (to 5.2 percent) for those who only have a high school diploma. Americans with an associate’s degree were in much better shape as well: 3.6 percent. Meanwhile, four-year college graduates earned an average of 40 percent more than people who have no postsecondary education.
As expensive as higher education has become, its benefits are still unambiguous. As such, Kansas is right to use postsecondary attainment as the most critical indicator of how well our education system is working.
Members of The Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board are Zach Ahrens, Matt Johnson, Ray Beers Jr., Laura Burton, Garry Cushinberry, Mike Hall, Jessica Lucas, Veronica Padilla and John Stauffer.