YOU DECIDE: Why is education important?
We hear it all the time: “Education is important. You must get an education to get ahead in today's economy. Education is the best investment a person can make.”
Young people have these phrases drilled into them starting in elementary school. Five decades ago, my parents said the same things to me.
But what is it about education that makes it more important today than perhaps any time in the past? How has education changed, and how are we responding to these changes?
One direct way education has changed is seen in income figures. Thirty years ago, the average worker with a college degree earned 50 percent more than the average worker with a high school degree. Today the difference, in constant purchasing power dollars, is 100 percent. So the workplace clearly reflects the greater importance of education.
What's behind this? Frank Levy and Richard Murnane, authors of The New Division of Labor , argue the nature of work today has changed. Simply put, “brain-power” is in; “brawn-power” is out. Computers and modern technology now perform routine and simple tasks, leaving humans to deal with more complex decisions in which greater thought is involved.
More jobs, especially the better-paying ones, require analysis, thinking, interpretation and communication. And for most, acquiring these skills requires more education.
Education's enhanced importance is seen not only in professional white-collar jobs, but also in blue-collar ones. For example, years ago auto mechanics learned their trade on the farm or tinkering with engines in the garage on weekends. Their work was driven by hunches and experience.
Modern auto mechanics must be able to read and interpret manuals and computer printouts. They frequently attend school and workshops and must also be able to communicate to their managers and clients.
Today's economy places a premium on verbal and math skills in a much wider range of jobs than in the past, a premium backed up with money.
Is North Carolina responding to education's increased importance in the workplace? Has our workforce adapted to the demands of the skill-based economy?
Several education indicators for the state are encouraging, suggesting that citizens and decision-makers have gotten the message. Since 1970, the percentage of the adult population with a high school degree has doubled. More remarkable, the percentage of North Carolinians with a college degree has almost tripled. Both gains have been faster than the national average.
It also appears North Carolina's students are performing better educationally. In the last 30 years, the state's SAT scores have risen almost twice as fast as for the nation. Also, on many of the national standardized tests for elementary students, North Carolina has moved from below the national average to above national scores.
Certainly these numbers don't imply all is well with education. Many students don't take advantage of the educational opportunities open to them. Dropout rates are still an issue in the state. There is also considerable debate about the best and most efficient ways to provide public education.
But it does appear that a large portion of North Carolina gets it and realizes education is today's ticket to a good paycheck in virtually any field.
Now we have to decide how to spread this attitude, and how to do so better and more intelligently for more people.
Dr. Mike Walden is a William Neal Reynolds Professor and extension