July | August 2017

An Educated Citizenry Is States’ Best Shot to Create Jobs
and a Better Quality of Life

By James Applegate
Perhaps, as the saying goes, there are no silver bullets in life.
Today, however, the data clearly tell us that the closest thing a state has to a silver bullet for creating a successful 21st century economy and an improved quality of life—better health, lower crime, citizens who contribute—is a dramatic increase in the number of college educated people in its workforce age population. The connection between states with a more educated population and increased per capita income, tax revenues, public health, and citizen engagement, as well as lower crime, smoking and obesity rates is clear.
This is a classic win-win for states: providing greater wealth while lowering demands on public resources from Medicaid, public assistance and prisons.
Many governors, legislators, mayors, county judges, and education and business leaders know this.
The data from our states, however, make clear that dramatic action is required to drive education levels from “what is” to “what must be” unless states want to be left behind in the race to succeed in this economy. That is why the Lumina Foundation, the largest foundation in the country solely focused on college access and success, is devoting its resources to mobilize states, cities and the nation around Goal 2025—to raise the percent of our workforce with a quality college degree certificate or other credential from the current less than 40 percent, where we have been mired for decades, to 60 percent by 2025.
Labor market data tells us that even by 2018 almost two-thirds of the new and replacement jobs in this economy will require some form of college education. In growing industry sectors that number is higher. A recent study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce has broken these 2018 workforce demands out by state, and industry sectors within each state. A second report from Lumina providing current education levels by state, and even county, clearly shows that most of the country is far from having the educated workforce it will need to fill those 2018 jobs. These low education levels will undercut any effort to create jobs as well because economic research makes clear that a more educated workforce is needed to increase productivity and create jobs, not just fill current workforce demands.
Employers from across industry sectors are sounding the alarm about the skills gap that is threatening their viability. Jobs are going begging. As the education level of our younger workforce has plummeted to 15th in the developed world, many are wondering if the United States can continue to provide the talent they need. The wage premium for a college degree is higher than it has ever been and growing. Unemployment rates in this tough economy, even for recent college graduates, are much less than half that for high school graduates. Economic research makes clear that a more educated workforce increases productivity and actually helps create jobs, not just fill current demands.
So what needs to be done to load and fire this near silver bullet and set a state on a trajectory to a successful future? States have some clear opportunities today to make the dramatic gains we need even in this time of very constrained resources. Here are a few.
There are other practice and policy issues in which states, cities and colleges could and should engage to be economically competitive and support a quality of life that will keep and attract people and employers. To help with this work, the Lumina Foundation recently supported the launch of a new one stop Web resource “PolicyDirect” that provides easy to read, cutting-edge research with direct implications for policy makers.  There you will find 300 easy-to-use summaries of research highlighting critical findings that should inform policy and practice on important higher education issues such as college preparation, financial aid, productivity, and student success. Moreover, the Lumina Foundation stands ready to partner with state leaders in whatever ways are helpful to jump start progress toward Goal 2025. 
The challenge to dramatically raise education levels is urgent. The clock is ticking. Goal 2025 is an audacious goal. States and cities that embrace this goal for themselves and collaborate across sectors can achieve it and look forward to strong economic recovery and a high quality of life. The consequence of continued stagnant education levels is the painful year-to-year, hand-to-mouth existence we see playing out in too many states today.
The rest of the world is not waiting for us to wake up. It is past time to ready ourselves for the challenge, take aim at the goal of increased education attainment and fire the near silver bullet that will secure the future.