Chancellor Hill: The answer is higher education

This commentary appeared in the August 30, 2015 edition of the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

In 1963, my father lost his coal mining job at the Kopperston No. 1 mine in Wyoming County. With very little money, we returned to our farm in Lincoln County, hoping for better days. It was a challenging time for our family – and a defining moment in my life.

I observed intently as my father worked hard to sharpen his skills and his mind, taking night classes at a local high school. His resolve paid off when he earned a job in Richwood at the Department of Natural Resources.

And it was then that my own resolve to get a good education was cemented.

Today, with West Virginia’s shifting economy, state leaders are looking for answers – for a path forward in an environment crowded with layoffs, industry changes, and new workforce demands.

Inflaming this challenging mix is a growing – but patently false – assertion that college no longer holds the promise it once did. As these arguments are fueled by unemployment and underemployment trends, there is deepening doubt in the value of postsecondary education, and specifically in the pay-off of a four-year degree.

Regrettably, and I believe partly as a result of this dwindling faith in the value of a degree, we are seeing fewer numbers of young West Virginians pursuing higher education.

Last year, West Virginia’s college-going rate – the number of high school graduates enrolling in higher education institutions the fall after graduation – was the lowest it has been since 1999. Of the 18,414 students who graduated in 2014, only 10,059 or 54.6 percent went on to college.

These are troubling statistics, especially when research consistently tells us that education beyond high school is critical to a person’s social mobility and economic success.

Studies have shown that students who complete a bachelor’s degree earn, on average, $1 million more over a lifetime than those who stop after high school. Likewise, those with higher levels of education are more likely than others to be employed and college-educated adults are more likely to receive health and pension benefits.

With new research by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, we also know that while the national economy is still gaining traction, good jobs – mostly full-time jobs with higher wages, health insurance, and retirement plans – are back. And they are going to college graduates.

According to the report released earlier this month, of the 2.9 million good jobs created since the national economic recovery, 2.8 million have been filled by people with at least a bachelor’s degree. In addition, good jobs – namely management positions, science and technology jobs, and healthcare professions – are growing at much faster rates than low- or middle-wage jobs.

Now is not the time to set the bar low. Now is not the time to depress the thinking of our young people and discourage them from the very thing – a college degree – that can lead to a better life.

This is the time to lift them up, inspire them, and commit to higher education. This is the time to emphasize the vast importance of postsecondary learning, make forward-looking investments, and send a message to our young people that a college degree is within their reach – and full of lifelong benefit.

Though I was the son of a laid-off coal miner, I was fortunate to have parents who believed in the power of education and encouraged me to reach higher. Today, we should be doing the same, together as a state, for all young West Virginians.