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OPINION: Higher education

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Posted: Friday, January 25, 2013 3:00 am

We all benefit from a more educated society

Qualifying for the jobs of tomorrow is getting more demanding. There was a time when people could learn a traditional trade and open a shop of their own, but the evolution of the corporate world has made many entrepreneurial opportunities obsolete. Machines have taken over jobs that used to be done by humans.

More than ever, education is the doorway out of poverty. According to the Census bureau, the past decade saw a boom in educational attainment. From 2002 to 2012, the number of Americans with a doctorate grew by about 1 million, or 45 percent, while those who held a master’s climbed by 5 million, or 43 percent.

But attainment grew at every level. The population with an associate degree rose by 5 million, or 31 percent. Those whose highest degree was a bachelor’s degree grew 25 percent to 41 million. Meanwhile, the number of those without a high school or GED diploma declined by 13 percent, falling to 25 million.

Among workers 25 and older in 2011, average earnings were $59,415 for people with a bachelor’s degree but no graduate degree, compared with $32,493 for people with a high school diploma but no college.

Gov. Dave Heineman has persuaded the University of Nebraska and state college systems to freeze tuition rates for two years, in turn offering them budget increases of about 4 percent each year from the general fund. That will make college more affordable for students and their families. Nebraska ranks 40th among the states on the proportion of state higher education funds used for student financial aid. Most of state higher education funds in Nebraska go to support institutional operations. The idea is to help the university system’s four campuses attract more Nebraska students and meet ambitious enrollment goals, but also to boost the quality of the state’s workforce.

The National Commission on Higher Education Attainment, a group of leading college and university presidents, points out that it’s not enough to simply entice students to enroll. They say the nation faces an “unacceptable loss of human potential” when students never make it to graduation.

“We believe every institution must pay as much attention to the number of degrees it grants — completion — as it does to success in admissions and recruitment,” the commission members said in a recent report. “It is now time for all colleges and universities to marshal the resources needed to make completion our strategic priority.”

Campus leaders are urged to consider three main areas for reform: changing the campus culture, improving cost-effectiveness and quality, and making better use of data. The commission calls on college officials to make retention and graduation a priority, identifying struggling students and offering them more assistance along the way.

The underlying point isn’t to enrich universities or even push failing students toward graduation. Somebody has to take over the demanding jobs of the future, including development of new medicines, technology and products that keep society moving forward. Making college affordable is only part of the solution. We have to make sure young people are adequately prepared before they get there, and that they can graduate with the skills necessary to take on the challenges of a complex and demanding business world.

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