College is the Only Answer

Oregon has adopted something called the 40-40-20 plan.  The goal is for 40% of Oregonians by 2025 to hold Bachelors' Degrees or higher.  Another 40% by then will need two-year (Associates) degrees.  And the other 20% would have at least a high school diploma.  It's an ambitious goal, one immediately panned as unachievable by many, rather like NCLB's goal that 100% of students would meet high standards in reading and writing by 2014.

In the meantime, college tuition at Oregon's state universities continues to climb.  The University of Oregon will cost $9310 for tuition and fees (not including room and board) next year.  Four years ago, a year at UO was $6450.  That's a 45% increase at a time when incomes in Oregon are stagnant and unemployment remains above the national average.  More than 20% of Oregon's children live in poverty.

Those preparing for high school graduation and college lack the opportunities students just four years ago enjoyed -- extensive elective choices, vocational programs, Advanced Placement courses and small class sizes.  Class sizes are up all over the state, often by large margins.

We may not be able to get 100% of Oregon students to meet high school graduation standards.  We do after all still have some students with profound disabilities.  But if we look at the rest of the 40-40-20 plan, the part that imagines 80% of our students achieving at least some college education, we can and must do better to get there.  Long gone are the days when high school graduates could move from the podium to a family-wage job in a mill or doing construction. Those jobs have dried up, for many reasons but four are most influential:
  • Outsourcing of manufacturing, communications and other jobs to China, India, Mexico and elsewhere
  • Automation that displaces workers with machines
  • The 1990s and 2000s push to reduce business expenses and maximize profits, resulting in fewer workers, reduced benefits and a shift to non-benefited part-time jobs
  • Worker productivity improvements  American workers have become more than four times more productive than we were in 1970.  (4.57 times more productive in 2011 according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics)
But there's something else going on here too.  When we look at federal government policy, we see incentives for businesses to invest in equipment, new factories and moving factories from one place to another.  We also see disincentives for businesses to hire new workers or even to continue employing those they already have.

Consider the following:
  •  The United States is one of the few countries that expects employers to pick up the costs for health insurance.
  •  Social Security and Medicare payments by businesses for each employee rose from about 5% in 1970 to 7.65% today.  
  • The ability of businesses to expense capital improvements or to accelerate their depreciation makes investing in equipment a good deal (unlike investing in labor).
  • Local governments bend over backwards to attract new factories, providing all sorts of tax and infrastructure benefits to businesses.  There are rarely any attached requirements involving employment targets, pay levels or benefits expectations.
  • The US Tax Code continues to reward businesses that move their manufacturing or other enterprises offshore.  
Why does this matter?  It matters because there is no golden day approaching when businesses will step up their hiring to accommodate all of the new workers entering the labor force.  Unless policy changes are made (including reintroducing tariffs that protect domestic manufacturing), those low skilled jobs are not coming back.  Oregon needs highly skilled workers and a lot of them, if we're to reduce the numbers living in poverty in our state.

Let's see some real energy toward early childhood, K-12 education, community colleges and our university system.  If we don't invest now and do what's needed to inspire our graduates to go on to higher education, the 40-40-20 goal will join the trash heap of discarded ideas like CIM, CAM and competencies.