I am saddened to see the extent to which education is a target for officials trying to cut budgets. At least once a week there is an article about teacher layoffs, increasing class sizes and further reductions in the support for education. The governor of Pennsylvania has proposed a budget with a 47% cut in state support for higher education.
Education is clearly an investment for the future. In the U.S. a person is generally 18 years old when graduating from high school. About 30% of those students will graduate from college at age 21 or 22. For those pursuing a profession, graduate school will add two to six years or longer. We spend about the first third of our lives preparing for the rest of our life and a career.
Why spend so much time in school? One reason is the huge amount of knowledge that mankind has accumulated. Most business schools offer a two-year MBA which covers a large number of topics about business, and a student may specialize by taking five or six elective courses in one topic. I do not think that makes the student an expert, but it at least prepares her for an entry job. Our economy is tremendously complex and those who work have to be able to take advantage of new opportunities. If one looks just at technology, twenty years ago there were no cell phones and the Internet was a research network that could not be used for commercial purposes. Kodak and Blockbuster were doing great.
Portugal is the latest country to find itself in serious financial distress and request a bailout from the European Union. One background story I read argued that part of Portugal’s problems stemmed from a mediocre educational system. Without a highly educated and skilled workforce, one is not likely to find a lot of business investment or high-paying jobs.
For the U.S. to be competitive in a world economy that is getting more complex all the time, we need a well-educated population. I am surprised that business does not get more involved in supporting and promoting education. Companies need an educated and skilled workforce and they need customers. High school dropouts do not have a lot of purchasing power. Worse yet, what if that dropout ends up in prison or on welfare? Taxpayers have to fund these individuals in either case.
How can we convince public officials and the general population that education is too important to sustain huge cuts in funding? If anything we need to invest more in education; the U.S. used to have the largest number of people in college of any nation, but not any longer. I am afraid that our politicians see education as an expense and not an investment. Or they and the general population are unwilling to sacrifice current consumption for future generations.
We need to find more creative ways of financing education that will be less subject to disruptions in the economy. No one wants to pay more taxes, but it is hard to imagine how we can provide a more rigorous education to a growing number of students on a steadily decreasing budget.
CEO salaries are soaring once again, large bonuses are back on Wall Street for the crew that helped launch the financial crisis, the Pentagon budget is up, and our investment in education is declining. Is this really how we want to allocate our resources?