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Georgetown study: ‘Undereducated America’ becoming more unequal, less prosperous

Date Published: 07/28/2011

Author: Dane Smith, President


“The Ugly American” was a sensational best-selling book in the late 1950s and served as a warning that our arrogance in foreign policy (and our boorish personal behavior as visitors in other countries) was creating a dangerous anti-American backlash that threatened our ability to win the Cold War.

Many Americans began to worry about that image and took heed, or at least tried not to be so rude and oafish when traveling abroad. The book is widely credited for helping create the political will for establishing the Peace Corps.

Now comes “The Undereducated American,” a recent study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. And although it’s a scholarly study and not a political novel, it should shake us up and wake us up, because an undereducated populace is an even bigger threat to our prosperity and security than ethnocentric arrogance.

Three key bottom lines stand out in the report:

First, we need to regain our place as a leader in the world for higher education attainment, having dropped recently to ninth place among the wealthy democracies. The authors, Anthony P. Carnevale and Stephen J. Rose, note that American economic power has been all about universal education and that we were the first country to impose free and compulsory schooling.

For decades, we were far ahead of other nations in post-secondary enrollment and completion. By 2008, however, South Korea, Canada and other European and Pacific Rim nations have leaped ahead of us in degree attainment.

Second, this failure to keep up with the new economy’s demand for more education and technological skill is a key factor in our increasing inequality. A growing “wage premium” accrues to workers who have completed some type of degree from a post-secondary education institution, and skilled workers are paid about 80 percent more than unskilled, compared to a wage premium of 50 percent as recently as 1980.

The rate of increase in college-educated workers has slowed from 3 percent a year through the 1980s to just 1 percent per year in the past decade, and the gap between demand for these workers and the supply is widening. If it continues to widen, so will the wage premium.

Third, the report concludes that by 2025 we must add 20 million more Americans with post-secondary credentials to the workforce. In Minnesota, according to a previous study by the Georgetown University center, by 2018, 70 percent of our jobs will require some sort of higher-education credential. Currently, our estimate is that around 55 percent of Minnesotans ages 25 to 34 have those credentials.

Although this slow-moving crisis has been overshadowed recently by the national debt debate and our state government shutdown, there have been hopeful signs that the imperative for higher-education attainment is catching on. President Barack Obama has elevated it to top-priority status and has launched an “American Graduation Initiative” to produce more degrees. Although this effort is threatened by anti-government, anti-tax ideology and severe budget cuts, the administration has managed to push through at least some new funding and has highlighted the value of community colleges and the acquisition of one- and two-year certificates and specialized vocational education.

Higher education attainment goal-setting — and that’s completion, not just enrollment — has become a major initiative of the nation’s governors under the umbrella of the nonpartisan National Governor’s Association (NGA). National and state foundations are coming on board, led nationally by Indiana-based Lumina Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and by the Bush Foundation here in Minnesota.

A bill that establishes the goal of a 75 percent higher education attainment rate for Minnesota by 2020 has been introduced and has bipartisan sponsorship. Both the Minnesota Business Partnership and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce are out front in calling for higher levels of attainment and workforce training. The NGA has developed blueprints for states to follow, through their “Complete to Compete” initiative, with ideas for action, technical guides, completion metrics for policymakers, and examples of states that are forging ahead to establish goals.

On that NGA list of states at the forefront of goal-setting right now are Oregon, Ohio, Arizona, Tennessee and even Texas. Minnesota so far is not among the states listed, and that’s out of character for us.

The North Star State has long stood out as one of the most educated, egalitarian and prosperous states, just as the U.S. stood out for the same reason among its peers in the world. The education edge has been our most important advantage, and it remains one we must not surrender.Setting an ambitious attainment goal and committing resources to achieving it may be the most important thing we can do to remain competitive and preserve our fairness and quality of life, in Minnesota and in our nation.


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, July 28, 2011.

Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a progressive public policy organization that promotes statewide economic growth for Minnesota through smarter public investments in human capital and infrastructure.

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