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Access to College is Key for Economic Rebound [OP-ED]

The numbers don't look good. Every day we are greeted with new evidence that our economy has slipped into a deepening recession. Disappointing earnings, decreases in tax revenues, projections of deficits, growing layoffs, waning consumer confidence all point toward even more troubling economic times ahead. The natural, almost visceral, reaction to the daily downturn drumbeat, especially within our legislative bodies, is to cut back allocations for even our most essential services. But this knee-jerk reaction will make our situation worse, not better. Now is precisely the time to for renewed investment in those educational programs that will both address society's immediate needs and provide the path out of our current malaise in the months and years to come. Now is precisely the time for renewed commitment to the student aid programs that make higher education possible for so many of our citizens. It is one of the paradoxes of economics that, the poorer our economy performs, the greater is the demand for higher education's programs and services. In tough times, more people need more help in achieving their educational goals. Laid-off workers who are eager to retrain for a new career. Spouses needing new skills as they return to the workforce. High school graduates struggling to attend college when the alternative of good-paying job without a college degree seems increasing unrealistic. Families of college students who now must dip into savings earmarked for college expenses in order to meet other expenses and debts. All of these groups are turning, with new urgency, to state and federal programs intended to make college possible for all who have the abilities to succeed. And overlaying our current economic situation are the demographics of a burgeoning number of college-age students, a large portion of who are qualified to attend college but lack financial resources. If Tennessee's General Assembly and our Congress fail in meeting this pressing need, the damage will not be contained to only those pursuing higher education. Our entire economy, and all of us, will be adversely affected over both the short- and long-term. Short-term, we will face additional thousands of under equipped workers being dumped into an over-saturated job market, with the resulting increases in demands for unemployment and welfare payments. Long-term, as the economy emerges from the current downturn - as it certainly will - we will not have the educated workforce necessary for the modern workplace as employers once again begin to expand. Tennessee has already seen top jobs go to other states due to an under-prepared workforce. The numbers show that a well-educated workforce is key to economic recovery, growth, and opportunity. The "new economy" will require higher levels of educational attainment. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the 30 fastest growing occupations through 2008, about half will require at least an associate's degree, and more than one-third will require at least a bachelor's degree. An educated workforce contributes to the continued and long-term economic strength of our state and nation. Workers with more education earn more money and pay more taxes. According to the College Board, on average, those with a bachelor's degree earn 81% more than those with only a high school diploma. US Census Bureau and the Internal Revenue Service data for 1994 show that people who attended college for at least one year paid 71% of all income taxes, while those with only a high school diploma paid 23% ("College is Possible," American Council on Education, 1998). As consumers, college graduates also play an important role in stimulating the economy by spending on average 72% more than non-college graduates. According to economist Sandy Baum, "Denying access to college is tantamount to denying access to economic success... If students who have the potential to increase their productivity by furthering their education are not given the opportunity to do so, society will possess less human capital and fewer productive resources than it could. There will be a smaller pie for all of us to divide. ("The Federal Role in Financing Higher Education: An Economic Perspective," October 1995.) Now is the time for our state's leaders to demonstrate their vision for our future, and their faith in those who will be so instrumental in reaching that future. Now, in these most difficult days, we will find and nurture the seeds for our ultimate success in the educational advancement of our citizenry by ensuring adequate funding for higher education and our proven student aid programs. Dr. Claude O. Pressnell, Jr. President Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association 2409 21st Avenue South, Suite 202 Nashville TN 37212 (615) 242-6400, ext. 201 pressnell@ticua.org