Will state lose its edge?

March 26, 2007|By Patrick M. Callan

Maryland's single greatest competitive advantage in today's high-tech, global economy is its well-educated work force. But that is also its great vulnerability: Workers eventually retire, and unless the state replaces each retiring generation with a generation that has an even larger proportion of college graduates and holders of other post-high school certificates, its competitive edge could soon disappear.

Will Maryland do what it takes to keep raising the education level of its work force?

Since the early 1990s, the United States as a whole has not. In fact, over the last decade and a half, the once-remarkable growth of America's college-educated work force has ground to a virtual halt. Meanwhile, the country's major global competitors have been drastically increasing the number of students they send to and graduate from college.

South Korea has moved from ineffectual to best in the world in the percentage of its 18- to 24-year-olds that it enrolls in college. Currently, 48 percent are enrolled. China has doubled its percentage from 10 percent in 1999 to just under 20 percent in 2006. Japan and most European countries have surged in the number of college graduates they are producing. In Japan, the percentage of young adults with an associate's degree or higher in 2003 was 52 percent. In Finland, Norway and Sweden, 40 percent of young adults hold an associate's degree or higher.

As a result, these countries are attracting more and more of the best jobs of the new global economy. And the U.S. economy is showing signs of falling behind.

Maryland, on the other hand, has been doing well. In the early 1990s, it had a higher percentage of residents with bachelor's degrees than most states, and since then it has increased that percentage substantially. The state also has improved the rate of college-going among its young people - those who will replace its educated older workers as they retire. The share of Maryland's 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in college or other higher education grew from 29 percent in 1992 to 37 percent in 2004. This is one if the more heartening findings of "Measuring Up 2006," the latest report from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

But the research also shows another trend in Maryland education that, if left unaddressed, could soon undermine the state's achievements. Maryland has allowed a sizable education gap between its white and nonwhite populations to grow even larger over the last 15 years. Young blacks and Hispanics in Maryland are now far less likely than whites to enroll in college or post-high school training programs, and those who do enroll are less likely to remain in school and earn degrees or certificates.

This is not just inequitable. In a state whose work force grows more nonwhite every year, it is a prescription for economic decline.

The problem is compounded by Maryland's paltry efforts to make higher education more affordable for its residents. Young people from low-income families in Maryland are only half as likely to enroll in college as those from high-income families. Nonetheless, the state continues to invest very little in financial aid for the needy (for example, matching only 53 cents for every dollar in federal Pell grants), and it offers no low-tuition college options.

For low- and moderate-income families in Maryland, the net cost of sending a child to college thus remains discouragingly steep. For the poorest fifth of the state's families, the net cost of sending a child to community college for a year - after receiving all available financial aid except for small, private scholarships - would amount to 62 percent of family income.

It is time for Maryland to start dismantling such financial barriers to higher education. And it is time for the state to step up other efforts to get its poor and minority students prepared for, enrolled in and graduated from college as successfully as its wealthy and white students.

Maryland is looking good now, but its continuing economic strength is likely to depend on eliminating trends that point to educational weaknesses.

Patrick M. Callan is president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization supported by national foundations. His e-mail is pcallan@highereducation.org.

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