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State and regional leaders are, in a way, behaving a little like well-meaning parents who want to offer their wise guidance for the future to Arkansas' young people.

Local chambers of commerce, business advocacy groups and industry promoters are wanting kids to give serious thought to jobs that don't require college.

To be fair, Arkansas kids don't require a lot of encouragement to sidestep a college degree. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates Arkansas ranks third from the bottom in terms of residents who hold bachelor's degrees or higher (22 percent). The state ranks fifth from the bottom in residents with two-year associate degrees.

To attract new, modern industries to Arkansas, state leaders have said Arkansas' workforce needs more people with higher education degrees. But a lot of industries already in Arkansas need workers, too, and they're devoting considerable energy to attract students with the promise of good pay and on-the-job training right out of high school.

Last January, for example, the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce released a book about 26 employers looking for employees, with many jobs requiring no college degree. It went to every student in grades 8-12 in the Fayetteville School District and in senior high grades in other area schools.

Such jobs can be great opportunities, for young people who have no desire to go to college. College isn't for everyone, and no Arkansan should ever feel bad about choosing another path. That is, at least so long as one adopts an attitude of lifelong learning, which can happen outside formal classes and programs. The end of school should never be the end of learning.

But young people should also recognize potential pitfalls to moving into a career with only a high school education.

According to the United States Social Security Administration, educational attainment makes substantial differences in lifetime earnings. A few years back, the agency calculated men with bachelor's degrees earn about $900,000 more in median lifetime earnings than those with just high school diplomas. Women in that scenario earn $630,000 more. Graduate degrees put those numbers at $1.5 million and $1.1 million, respectively.

"No matter how you cut it, more education pays" is the way a report from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce put it.

"A 2002 Census Bureau study estimated that in 1999, the average lifetime earnings of a bachelor's degree holder was $2.7 million (2009 dollars), 75 percent more than that earned by high school graduates in 1999," the Georgetown report stated. "Today, we find similar numbers -- but since 1999, the premium on college education has grown to 84 percent. In other words, over a lifetime, a bachelor's degree is worth $2.8 million on average."

The lifetime pay gap between college educated and non-college workers, in other words, is growing.

Are there exceptions? Absolutely. But the Georgetown report explains that only 14.3 percent of people with a high school diploma as their highest level of education make as much money as someone with a bachelor's degree. It's 9.2 percent compared to master's degree holders and 4.6 percent compared to those holding doctorates.

I'm not here to suggest choosing a path other than college is wrong or less than desirable or honorable. Indeed, some of the finest people I know achieved their success without college. That path worked well for them.

What I suggest is students who face decisions affecting the rest of their lives must do so with the long view, mindful that industry needs change more rapidly than ever.

All things being equal, higher education degrees deliver on lifelong capacity to earn more money. Money isn't everything, but young people should have a strong reason to dismiss that opportunity.

Commentary on 11/03/2019

Print Headline: Learn more, earn more, studies say

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