Having options can beat jobless blues

By Jack Z. Smith

There’s nothing like a brutal recession to reinforce the value of a good education.

The U.S. unemployment rate was 8.1 percent in February, the highest in about 25 years. A closer look reveals that the jobless rate is an alarming 12.6 percent for people who lack a high school diploma. It’s considerably lower, 8.3 percent, for high school graduates, and only 4.1 percent for college graduates.

A nationwide Census Bureau survey showed these estimated annual median incomes for 2007 for workers 25 and older at varying levels of education:

$19,405, less than high school graduate;

$26,894, high school graduate (includes equivalency certification);

$32,874, some college or an associate (community college) degree;

$46,805, bachelor’s degree;

$61,287, graduate or professional degree.

Those numbers make a point that’s often hard to drive home to young kids struggling in school: The more education you get, the greater your job security and the higher your income likely will be.

A college graduate with a stimulating, purposeful career is also likely to lead a happier, more-fulfilling life than a high school dropout hamstrung by limited education and a dead-end job barely paying monthly bills.

There are, of course, many exceptions to the general rule that better-educated persons make more money and have greater job security. Some multimillionaires were high school dropouts whose innate smarts and exceptional drive led them to success in the business world.

The need for a strong formal education is greater than ever in today’s global knowledge- and information-based, high-tech economy.

No one is emphasizing that more forcefully than President Barack Obama, who rose from humble circumstances to graduate from Harvard Law School and attain the nation’s highest elected office.

I have mixed emotions about some of Obama’s recent exhortations on education.

Longer school days or extended school years? How much extra cost might that entail for taxpayers? Do students have the attention span for more class hours? What effect would such a change have on already hardworking school administrators and teachers?

Teacher merit pay? What criteria should determine which teachers receive merit pay and how much? How politicized could this issue become? Could it hurt teacher morale?

These ideas are worth consideration but could have more downside than upside if poorly implemented.

High pedestal

That said, it’s very pleasing to see Obama placing education on a high pedestal, while mincing no words in telling young people how vital it is.

Obama praises the GI Bill that “sent a generation to college and created the largest middle class in history.” He’s concerned that America has “one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation” and that “half of the students who begin college never finish.”

He urges all students to “commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school, vocational training or an apprenticeship. ... Every American will need to get more than a high school diploma.”

But a good education begins where common sense tells us it should.

As Obama told Congress, “There is no program or policy that can substitute for a mother or father who will attend those parent-teacher conferences, or help with homework after dinner, or turn off the TV, put away the video games, and read to their child. ... Responsibility for our children’s education must begin at home.”

If you don’t think education is important, just chew over those unemployment and income statistics one more time. In this case, statistics don’t lie.

X Jack Z. Smith is an editorial writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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