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The Economist: the importance of being educated

"Education is not an option; it is a requirement," a wise individual once commented. I couldn't agree more.

It's not that everyone needs a Ph.D. in economics, although a few more political decision makers who have studied the subject in depth wouldn't hurt. But the days of high-paying jobs for people who drop out of high school at 16 are gone for good.

It's time to quit whining about the disappearance of the middle class and the growing divide between rich and poor and get on with the job of educating ourselves for the good jobs that will be available in the 21st century.

Not everyone needs a college degree. Half of my grandchildren work in the trades - auto mechanics and construction. The auto mechanic graduated from a community college as a master mechanic. The carpenter is working on a two-year business degree so he can one day manage his own construction firm. A granddaughter is studying business so she can manage her husband's country music career. Others are teachers, researchers, studying to be lawyers or nurse practitioners. All will be solidly middle class, benefitting from the value of an education.

Since the silly season is upon us - I learned recently that my granddaughter who did her senior thesis on biking to work is actually a subversive who is plotting to have the United Nations run the world - let me make a wild and crazy proposal. What if we expand Colorado's free education system from K-12 to include two years of community college? Some people will learn a skilled trade; some will discover that a four-year college education is not for them; others will get a relatively inexpensive start toward bachelor's or master's or doctoral degrees.

The statistics (U.S. Census data) on the value of an education are stunning.

• A high school dropout earns only 64 percent of someone who finishes high school.
• An associate degree increases a high school graduate's wages by 36 percent.
• A bachelor's degree almost doubles what a high school graduate earns.
• Someone with a master's degree makes about 150 percent more than a high school graduate.
• A doctoral degree more than triples earnings.
• A professional degree quadruples them.

Or look at the data a different way - what one can expect to earn over a 40-year career.
• High school diploma only: $1.5 million
• Bachelor's degree: $2.6 million
• Master's degree: $3.0 million
• Doctoral degree: $4.0 million
• Professional degree: $5.3 million

And while I'm throwing out silly ideas, what if we make sure we educate students rather than simply train them? When I read the core curricula are being discarded, I worry that young people don't have time to study literature, science, math, history or economics.

A long time ago we believed people could develop expertise in many different fields. Then we realized knowledge was expanding so rapidly that four years wasn't long enough to learn everything we need to know in our chosen field.

Now we are moving toward simply training people for a job. What is the difference between a trained individual and an educated individual, you may wonder. Kenneth Boulding explained it succinctly in an economics class at CU-Boulder.

"An educated man is someone who, when Aristotle is mentioned doesn't say, ‘Oh, wasn't that Jackie Kennedy's second husband?'"

In 2007, Colorado, one of the wealthiest states, ranked 48th out of the 50 states in state and local public higher education support per full-time equivalent student. Only New Hampshire and Vermont were stingier, while neighboring Wyoming ranked first.

I've argued for years that if we spent more on education, we could spend a lot less on prisons. As my soccer player/granddaughter says, "Let's just do it!"
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Tucker Hart Adams

Tucker Hart Adams, president of the Adams Group, monitored and analyzed the Colorado economy for 30 years. She can be reached via her website, coloradoeconomy.com.

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