The Economist: a major challenge
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Dr. M. Ray PerrymanAugust 2, 2012 | 1,827 views | 1 comment
We recently completed our annual long-term forecasting effort. (If you’re a regular reader of this column, you have recently seen highlights of our projections.) After sorting through massive amounts of information, my conclusion is that Texas stands to outperform most parts of the United States over an extended time horizon. Even so, the state faces unique challenges in addition to those facing the nation (such as the ongoing difficulties in Europe and the potential “fiscal cliff” at the end of the year).
One major challenge facing the Lone Star State is educational attainment. The percentages of Texans with associate or higher degrees is lower than that of the United States as a whole, and a number of competing states rank much higher than Texas. In addition, there are disturbing patterns such as a drop in the percent of young adults with associate degrees or higher in Texas, while the proportion in the United States is rising (and both are far below other nations such as Korea).
One reason for the widening disparity is that the state’s fastest-growing demographic group, Hispanics, has historically been less likely to complete high school or seek higher education. Over time, this pattern must be reversed to secure sustainable prosperity. Hispanics already comprise more than half of public elementary and secondary students, and the proportion is growing rapidly. Unless greater numbers of these kids choose higher education and complete programs, the state’s relative position will almost certainly decline.
The numbers of young people making their way through Texas high schools and colleges are disturbingly low. A study by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems found that of students who started the 8th grade in a Texas public school in 1996, 1997, or 1998, less than 20% had completed a certificate or degree program in Texas (and less than 22% even with an adjustment for degrees or certificates earned outside the state).
This need has long been recognized, both for higher education and public schools. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s “Closing the Gaps” initiative began in 2000 and represented an effort to increase educational attainment among various demographic groups. In a 2007 study of the potential benefits of achieving the goals set forth in the initiative, The Perryman Group estimated that by 2030, the economic benefits would include more than a million jobs. Given changes in the economy since that time, the stakes have only grown higher.
While enrollment is the first hurdle which must be cleared, simply getting students into college classrooms is insufficient. They must also be well prepared by the state’s public schools for success in that environment and, ultimately, in the job market. Similarly, they should be preparing for the jobs that will be available in the future. Having a degree will not guarantee employment (though it certainly helps). In a slower job market, employers are able to pick and choose from a larger pool of candidates and can be more selective about the types of degrees and coursework of potential new hires. Job opportunities vary widely across occupations, and choosing with an eye toward future employment can help ensure students get the most from their investment in higher education.
Without answers to the difficult issues surrounding education, Texas will be hard pressed to maintain income levels, quality of life, and attractiveness to draw potential corporate locations. In a tight budget environment, it is essential to stay focused on the end goal: preparing young Texans for future success in life. In this way, we can help ensure that the state continues to offer a highly capable workforce, which is a key and, indeed, essential ingredient to future prosperity.
Dr. M. Ray Perryman is President and Chief Executive Officer of The Perryman Group (www.perrymangroup.com). He also serves as Institute Distinguished Professor of Economic Theory and Method at the International Institute for Advanced Studies.