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Not Who You Think: The Truth About Today’s College Students

An observation about school made by a Georgia lawyer 60 years ago still makes sense in very different times.

“Fathers send their sons to college either because they went to college — or because they didn’t,” said Lanham L. Henderson.

He’d get an argument about that today, judging from the recent plunge in our national regard for higher education.

In case you haven’t seen it, a Pew Research Center report shows that just over half the public, 55 percent, say that colleges and universities have a positive effect on the country.

But there’s a sharp division based on worldviews. The survey shows 58 percent of Republicans and people who lean Republican say colleges have a negative effect. Among Democrats it’s just the opposite: 72 percent see a positive effect.

You and I may have our theories about this. The divisions in our country take up countless hours of cable TV bandwidth and Internet argument. I’m not wading into that swamp, but I’ve got some good news when it comes to the future of American young people and our country’s prospects overall.

First, think about Henderson’s experience. After attending hometown public schools, he went on to the University of Georgia and Harvard before serving six terms in Congress starting in 1947.

Back then, in the post-World War II surge of growth and American dominance, anything seemed possible — with or without a college education. Breadwinners could more easily find steady work at good pay, opportunities that today are recalled with a gauzy nostalgia.

But even then, families knew the value of education, the pride of accomplishment in providing a better life for the next generation. As Henderson the Georgia lawyer knew, parents grasped that value, either because they themselves had been to college — or because they hadn’t.

Fast-forward a few decades, and there are two critical points that families need to understand:

First, there really is no choice when it comes to education or training after high school. Since the end of the Great Recession a few years ago, almost all the decent, living-wage jobs have gone to people with degrees or high-quality certificates.

If you have any doubt, consider this stunning fact: According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, 95 percent of new jobs created since the Great Recession ended in late 2010 went to people with an education beyond high school — a degree, certificate, or another credential. More than 70 percent of those new jobs went to people with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Secondly, not only are the economic prospects of educated people better than ever, but there’s a troubling shortage of well-trained and educated workers in America that could leave millions of jobs unfilled.

This postsecondary gap isn’t just about college, either. When we talk about education and training after high school we’re talking about everything from two- and four-year diplomas to high-quality certificates, and certifications in manufacturing technology, medicine, and other fields.

This is a case of mutual need: Millions of American young people — not to mention their parents and other family members — need education and training to secure a middle-class life. And their country, in return, needs them: America can’t compete globally without every bit of talent we can muster.

When we foster that talent, the circle is complete: Those with higher credentials earn more, are healthier and participate more in civic life.

Look, it’s easy to understand the confusion. The endlessly repeated video of campus protests, the perception of liberal elites, the thousand images repeated daily by the critics of college life. How, some would say, is this helping?

But the sensational images are just that — images, not the reality of most higher education across the country. While protests — a fundamental American right, by the way — may take up part of the space at a few schools, the story is much different elsewhere.

Most of what we think we know about college students — the image of very young adults, just out of high school — is outdated. More than a third of today’s students are over 25. More than half of them have jobs and more than a quarter are raising children.

In short, the image of angry protests or keg-tapping Animal House denizens doesn’t describe the military veterans, people rebooting their skills and second-career students you’re more likely to see.

Of course, this much is true: A divided country’s wounds could take years to heal. Let’s acknowledge that, respect each other and rediscover the civility we’re known for.

While we’re at it, let’s remember the source of so much prosperity that built our nation. In good times and bad, America’s trained and educated workforce made us a leader in the world.

Now’s not the time to stop. Instead, let’s support and grow America’s opportunities for education and training after high school — our families and our future depend on it.

This piece also appeared at WashingtonPost.com

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FEATURED VIDEO
Stronger Nation 2017 demonstration
Stronger Nation 2017 demonstration
June 19, 2017

A Stronger Nation 2017 report uses Census data to track progress in degree attainment at several levels – nationally, in metropolitan areas, in all 50 states, and down to the county level. It also contains national data and state-specific estimates that show attainment of high-quality postsecondary certificates.