Jon Anne Willow
Bad Democrat

Education, education, education

By - Dec 12th, 2011 10:46 pm
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Education, education, education

2011 is careening toward the brick wall of year-end with no air bag in sight. Every day it seems a new, insurmountable crisis replaces yesterday’s headlines as we helplessly watch world markets collapse, national support systems wither away and access to future opportunity erode. Then there’s fear of other nations, something most American adults living don’t even remember first hand, having spent our lives nestled in the bosom of the world’s greatest super power. As an opinion columnist hobbled by a love of fact and circumstantial nuance, I am toying with defeat in my quest to take clear and sustained positions on most things.

But one thing is crystal clear to me: people need to know stuff. If Wisconsin and the United States are looking for one magic bean to regrow the verdant stalk of prosperity, an educated, skilled workforce seems like a no-brainer.

A couple of weeks ago I was a guest panelist on “Sunday Insight with Charlie Sykes” (guest host, Jeff Wagner). One of our topics was the announcement that Wisconsin had lost almost 10,000 jobs in the month of October. Jeff asked each panelist for their solution. Alderman Bob Donovan was quick to point out that there are currently over 33,000 openings in Wisconsin that sit unfilled because of a lack of skilled workers, and suggested an aggressive focus on training and education to fill current and future available positions, thereby lowering unemployment and more successfully attracting companies to Wisconsin. In what may have been one of public affairs television’s weirder moments, both Mikel Holt and I agreed with Mr. Donovan. Wagner dismissed the notion as “interesting in the long-term, but not immediate enough to help right now.” Panelist Rep. Jim Ott (R-Mequon) recommended sticking with the current course of attracting businesses to the state through financial incentives.

But how does that work? If we are seeking to attract skilled, good-paying jobs to Milwaukee and Wisconsin and we can’t fill the 33,000 we already have, how is education not the answer?

I grew up in a classic, 70s-style single-parent family. That means my dad was nowhere in sight and never paid a dime in support. My mom had no post-secondary education but worked selling aluminum siding over the phone and cocktail waitressing two nights a week to feed me and my sister. When the bottom fell out of the domestic economy in the late-70s, my mom’s siding sales gig dried up. Extra shifts at the lounge didn’t fill the gap. A career counselor with the State of Iowa helped connect her to the resources she needed to both pay for college and navigate the system. My mom received her Bachelors in three years and her Masters in Social Work in another 18 months. It wasn’t easy; we had our stuff on the street more than once, lived with our pastor’s family for a while and were even split up for a time, with my sister and I each living with different relatives. But in the end my mom graduated with honors and began to build a successful career counseling at-risk adolescents and their families. She was still a struggling social worker when I graduated high school, but thanks to Pell Grants and other need- and merit-based programs, I graduated college with a manageable level of debt, which kept the pressure down while I began my climb up the pay ladder.  Today you could call me a productive member of the middle class, an attainer of the American Dream.

But my story may become the stuff of legend. When I started college in 1984, a Pell Grant and a resident tuition grant covered about two-thirds of my costs (fun fact: tuition my first semester at Iowa was $612). This year, the maximum Pell Grant award is $5,550, with resident tuition, fees and room and board at Iowa costing over $21,000. That’s about one-fourth covered by the Pell Grant, and only that much for maximum recipients. For the rest, kids, you’re on your own. As higher education funding declines and tuition skyrockets, Rome burns. And if Nero really had a fiddle he’d be tuning up.

It’s a travesty by any measure. We are engaged – right now – in a global race to see which nation will be the brain trust for the 21st century, and we’re losing. We can’t even fill the jobs we have, and we’re apparently allergic to creating a skilled and ready work force to be at the future disposal of companies around the world. Most frustrating: the answer is right in front of us.

An October report from Deloitte & Touche and the Manufacturing Institute revealed that 5-percent – or 600,000 – manufacturing jobs sit open in the U.S. because of a lack of skilled workers to fill them. Sixty-seven percent of manufacturing companies report a “moderate to severe shortage of available, qualified workers.” And a report issued last week by the Wisconsin Hospital Association fires the warning flare that if we don’t increase the currently-projected number of primary care physicians in the state by more than 2,000 in the next 15-20 years, we will see a catastrophic lack of access to care in rural and inner city areas that would affect a significant portion of the state’s population. And even though the number of students in need of Pell Grants has skyrocketed over the last ten years, funding for all student aid has continued to decline, while Congress talks about “closing the tax loophole” of the student loan interest deduction. The Wisconsin Legislature’s tack? Increase the tax credit for companies that relocate here while cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from higher education. I don’t get it; I’m baffled, really.

Meanwhile, organizations like the Milwaukee 7 press on, hoofing it all over the world to bring international companies to Milwaukee. In late November, the group announced it had helped broker a partnership between Bayside-based software developer Tri-Sept Solutions and Indian tech firm Blue Star Infotech, Ltd., that could bring about 250 tech-focused, full-time positions to Milwaukee, with an average salary of $60,000.

Hopefully they won’t have to advertise in Chicago – or India – to fill them.

0 thoughts on “Bad Democrat: Education, education, education”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Fun fact: National unemployment rate for those with a college degree is 4.1%. So why are our governor and legislature cutting hundreds of millions from the UW system budget?

  2. Anonymous says:

    A country spending twice as much per capita on education as it did in 1970 with zero effect on test scores is not under investing in education. It’s mis-investing.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Hi Seth. I was careful here to differentiate K-12 education from higher education. Despite our obsession, and correlating frustration, with measuring academic success on standardized test scores at the primary and secondary levels, there are still more qualified prospective college students than there is general will to see them reach their potential. These are two different conversations, though of course intertwined in the bigger picture.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Yet shouldn’t the question then be tossed towards the Universities as to why the large increase into the cost of receiving a higher education; rather than asking the government to increase it’s funding of education?

  5. Anonymous says:

    Hey Seth, there’s a direct correlation between decreases in funding, endowments and returns on investment and rising costs. Here’s one report, but there are many to choose from:

    Again, there’s only so much one can cover in a thousand words… This is obviously an enormous issue.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I must be missing something. The link on student aid doesn’t seem to support your assertion. I don’t doubt that there is a link between reduced revenues and increased tuition (sort of has to be, no?) but that doesn’t explain rising costs. The APLU study wants to say that increased spending isn’t a problem but I’m skeptical. The rising cost of higher education has exceeded inflation by so much for so long (it was well underway when I was in school and I am not a young guy) that the notion that it can be blamed on reductions in public spending seems counterintuitive.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Hey Rick, thank you for taking the time to read my article. Here at the office, we all agreed that one of your amazing super powers is to get people to defend arguments they never made. 😉 I probably touched too briefly on the idea that reductions in public funding are not the only factor in rising costs for higher education; massive decreases in giving and lower returns on institutional investment are also factors, and yes, I would bet that campus amenities and high pension costs add their share of burden. Tuition costs have outstripped inflation by a wide margin, there’s no doubt about it. That said, in 1984 the maximum Pell Grant was $2,500 (though the appropriated max was only $1,900). Today it is $5,550. That’s barely more than double. Gas, food, housing and other key economic indicators have increased by more than a factor of two during the same period, so I would argue that financial aid has not kept pace even with the overall economy.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Jon Anne,
    The pain it took for you to even remotely concur that high pension costs may be a slight contribution to such outlandish tuition costs is admirable; even for a ‘Bad Democrat’. Touche, nicely done, if ever so painful. I would argue that outlandish benefits and salaries are just as much of a problem. But considering that you and I will surely never agree to a solution, I must admit that you are one Democrat that I can understand and appreciate. Merry Chri/ Sorry, I mean Happy Holidays to you and yours. Although this post is full of sarcasm, my wishes for you and your family are extremely heartfelt. Thank you for our articles.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Well maybe I can do that, but here I was just asking a question. The chart that you link to doesn’t show a decline in grants. In fact, it shows that the maximum Pell Grant and has been stable in real terms and that the average grant has gone up a bit. That’s consistent with your numbers on the maximum grant. Contrary to what you say, on-line inflation calculators tell us that $ 2500 in 1984 is worth $ 5177.24 today. So it’s not at all clear to me that there has been a decline in aid to students but that’s what you said the link shows. This suggests that the real problem in what your Iowa example is rising costs. While that could be due to a reduction in non-tuition revenue, that’s a different phenomenom than a decrease in student aid. And I am very skeptical that an increase in tuiton and fees of that magnitude could be explained that way. My suspicion is that there are more dollars chasing higher education (although much of it is in student loans) and that has driven up costs.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Great point about external factors driving up tuition costs and the inflation calculator results. But to go all the way back to my point, even if I focused more than you feel is sound regarding Pell Grants: The system as it exists today increasingly denies access to quality higher education for those who either are (rightly) afraid of or don’t qualify for exorbitant borrowing. No matter who is the culprit (and, like you, I suspect there are many), as a nation we are sitting idle while a once-in-a-generation opportunity speeds by. And that’s not right.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Lost in this discussion: In Wisconsin, state funding has fallen from about 50% of the UW system budget 40 years ago to about 14% today. Would that the Highway (excuse me, “Transportation”) Department should take such a hit. Imagine the screaming.

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