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The Economist: Higher education progress

By By Ray Perryman
June 15, 2013 at 1:15 a.m.


Higher education is crucial to financial stability and success, both at an individual and a societal level. As the education level rises, income also rises, and unemployment rates fall. Nationwide, persons age 25 and older who have a high school diploma and are working in full-time jobs only earn an average of $652 per week (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Those with an associate degree average $785, with $1,066 for those with a bachelor's. The highest category is professional degree holders, who earn an average of $1,735 per week. Unemployment rates fall from 8.3 percent for those with a high school diploma to 6.2 percent for individuals with an associate degree, 4.5 percent for people with a bachelor's and the lowest of 2.1 percent for holders of professional degrees.

Clearly, there are very good reasons to encourage college attendance even beyond pure employment and earning statistics. In 2000, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board began the "Closing the Gaps by 2015" initiative.

An overarching target of Closing the Gaps was to bring Texas into line with other states with large populations, and goals fell into four key areas: enrollment; completion rates for certificates, associate degrees and bachelor's degrees; institutional excellence; and growth in federal research dollars. Targets were set, and much progress has been made.

The program also seeks to raise enrollment and performance levels among historically disadvantaged groups. My firm performed an assessment years ago of the economic effects of reaching these targets and found that in terms of jobs, successful completion of the Closing the Gaps would lead to more than a million new workers in 2030 beyond what would be expected under normal gains.

So how are we doing? There's good news and bad news. One positive trend is in the area of participation. Enrollment is up more than 540,500 over the 2000 total, which is better than the target level. African-American enrollment has already surpassed the goal for 2015, with an impressive 92 percent increase in higher education completion since 2000.

For Hispanics, enrollment is up 110 percent and completions are up 149 percent since 2000. But we're falling short of the goal for attendance by Hispanics and whites.

(As noted in a recent column, because Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the population, it's particularly important to encourage secondary education among that group.) For research, the goal has already been surpassed, with $3.7 billion in federal funds in 2012.

However, there is still work to be done. Texas is still well below the national level of educational attainment by a number of measures and even further below competing states such as California or nations such as Korea.

One of the problems is affordability, with loan programs dwindling and the recent economic downturn eating into college savings. Educational appropriations in Texas are lower on a per-student basis than in many states; nonetheless, average tuition and fees remain at the lower end of the range and are significantly below many states.

Another problem is preparedness. Texas ranks close to last - 47th - among states in SAT scores in reading and writing and 43rd in math. Only 24 percent of high school graduates score at college-readiness levels across-the-board on the ACT.

Some 45 percent of students entering college require remedial coursework. It is a poor tradeoff and a waste of resources (both the students' and the state's) for individuals to spend time in the expensive college setting to catch up on things they should have mastered in high school.

Looking to the future, it is imperative that we continue to make progress on the higher education front. While some Closing the Gaps targets are in reach, there are still looming problems. In addition to those noted above, for example, we aren't turning out enough graduates in key science, technology, and mathematics fields to be on schedule.

We are also behind in educational infrastructure and capacity. Moreover, the goals of Closing the Gaps were merely to catch up. Now it is time to work to move ahead. As the economy and workplace evolve, the stakes will only grow higher.

M. Ray Perryman is president and chief executive officer of The Perryman Group (perrymangroup.com). He also serves as institute distinguished professor of economic theory and method at the International Institute for Advanced Studies.

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