Ronald W. Marx: Everyone is better off when we have more college graduates

In the Jan. 19 Arizona Daily Star article “Arizona spends too much sending too many to college, lawmaker says,” Rep. John Kavanagh, chairman of the Arizona House Appropriations Committee, said, “If somebody’s going to end up in a sales position or be a real estate agent, why are we investing all this money in a research university degree?”

Rep. Kavanagh raises an important question. As he correctly states, tax revenues and student tuition dollars support university students. We need to ask questions about the wisdom of these investments.

What is the purpose of attending universities like the University of Arizona? There are two answers. 

The first is money. College graduates earn a lot more money through a lifetime than do high school graduates. It is safe to say that college graduates will earn at least 66 percent more than high school graduates, a fact underscored by a recent report of the Pew Research Center reported recently in the Star.

But there are more than personal benefits to a college degree. Social benefits also add up. Take health: Illness costs money to individuals and society. People with more education are healthier. The National Bureau of Economic Research estimates that a year more of education increases life expectancy by nearly two months. That amounts to eight months for a college graduate compared with a high school graduate. The Centers for Disease Control, the American Journal of Public Health and the Commission to Build a Healthier America all have published similar studies associating more education with better health. A more educated population is healthier and lives longer. Both are good outcomes.

Let’s return to earnings. All things being equal, higher earners pay more taxes. People with college degrees earn more money, and the extra taxes on those earnings amount to a lot, 83 percent more. If there are more college graduates in a state, their collective increased earnings will create a larger tax base.

Everyone is better off financially when a region has more college graduates, both individuals and governments. Given the intensity of the arguments about health care, we could cut costs by increasing the education level of the state, while creating a larger tax base so the state can afford broader health coverage. That’s a win-win proposition.

Rep. Kavanagh has three university degrees, including a Ph.D. He knows the value of a good education; he has one. Having served in the state Legislature since 2007, he values the importance of civic engagement. In fact, citizens with bachelor degrees vote more than those with high school diplomas. For those 25-44, the difference is huge: 45 percent of the high school graduates vote vs. 77 percent of college graduates.

The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that by 2018, 25 percent of Arizona jobs will require a high school diploma, and 24 percent will require a bachelor’s degree or more. The same figures for Colorado are 23 and 34 percent. The states have similar size population (Colorado has about a fifth fewer population), but there is greater demand for a more highly educated workforce in Colorado and, correspondingly, greater wealth per person (Colorado has about a third more wealth per person). The Arizona Public Engagement Task Force says that 85 percent of high-growth, high-wage jobs in Arizona will require postsecondary education, but only 34 percent of the state’s working adults hold an associate’s degree or greater. Many businesses are hesitant to relocate to Arizona because of an insufficient supply of a well-educated incoming workforce.

Can’t we strive to develop our economy for more highly educated workers, creating more economic growth for our state? Yes, but we need more college graduates.

There are many complexities involved in this argument. But the answer is clear: more college graduates are most certainly better than fewer.

Ronald W. Marx is the dean of the UA College of Education and a professor of educational psychology. He holds the Paul L. Lindsey and Kathy J. Alexander Chair in Education. Contact him at ronmarx@email.arizona.ed

This piece originally appeared in the Arizona Daily Star on February 19, 2014. 

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