The Elusive Qualified Employee

Just because there are jobs available doesn’t mean the unemployed can get those jobs. This is because the United States, it appears, simply isn’t funding training programs in the way it needs to ensure that there are enough people trained for these jobs.

According to an article by Catherine Rampell in the New York Times:

As state funding has dwindled, public colleges have raised tuition and are now resorting to even more desperate measures — cutting training for jobs the economy needs most.

Technical, engineering and health care expertise are among the few skills in huge demand even in today’s lackluster job market. They are also, unfortunately, some of the most expensive subjects to teach. As a result, state colleges in Nebraska, Nevada, South Dakota, Colorado, Michigan, Florida and Texas have eliminated entire engineering and computer science departments.

This comes along with a change in the way Americans view the purpose of higher education.

Public policy used to treat higher education as essentially a benefit to the community and society. Today budgets treat college as essentially a personal treat. State support for higher education has been declining for 40 years. With this comes escalating tuition.

What makes this particularly ironic is that while it’s difficult to explain how that training more people to read texts critically or understand historical patterns will have an immediate positive effect on the community (witness Florida Governor arguing that it wasn’t appropriate to provide state funding for the liberal arts since Florida “didn’t need more anthropologists”), in technology fields that relationship is pretty straightforward.

Education reformers often talk about the benefits of higher education in terms of higher personal earning penitential. At least in part this is because talking about education in terms of community development is difficult. According to a 2001 publication by the American Youth Policy Forum, for instance:

People with a bachelor’s degree earn an average of $42,200 a year— $16,000 more than the average high school graduate. At this income level, you would be earning more than the average household income in the U.S., so you might say it represents a middleclass living. In many parts of the country, you could own your own home and raise a family comfortably, especially if your spouse worked too.

That’s fine, and it’s essentially true, but it’s not really complete. According to the Rampell article:

“There has been a shift from the belief that we as a nation benefit from higher education, to a belief that it’s the people receiving the education who primarily benefit and so they should foot the bill,” said Ronald G. Ehrenberg, the director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute and a trustee of the State University of New York system.

But we don’t provide state support for higher education just so that citizens of the state can earn more money.

If a state doesn’t have enough nurses the state doesn’t need to expand the state-funded nursing programs so that young people can earn higher incomes as nurses. No, it needs to train more nurses so that there are enough trained staff to take care of all of the state’s sick people.

According to the article state appropriations for higher education declined by 7.6 percent in 2011-12. Since 1985 the cost of instruction has stated about the same. State institutions need about $10,000 per student. But over the same period the amount students have to pay to go to college (out of pocket, after accounting for financial aid) has doubled.

About three of every four U.S. college students are enrolled in public institutions.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer