We can't continue to ignore our neglected schools, colleges

By Gene Budig and Alan Heaps

School is out. No one wants to think about serious issues including the quality of American education. After all, it's summer.It's a time of carefree optimism and joy. As the American poet William Carlos Williams said, "In summer, the song sings itself."

Unfortunately, in this increasingly connected world, reality has a way of coming to the fore regardless of the season.Through the Internet, television, radio and our social circles, we are sent constant reminders of the daily individual and social challenges we face.

One such intrusion happened last month with the publication of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) annual Education At A Glance Report. (OECD is a coalition of 34 countries — including the United States and most of the developed nations — created to "promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world.")

Here are three of their findings.

— Education is a critical factor in determining individual and collective success: The unemployment rate is nearly three times higher for people without a high school degree than for those with a college education; the earnings of college educated adults is, on average, over 1.5 times that of adults with a high school education; those with higher levels of education are far less likely to smoke or suffer from obesity.

— The worldwide economic crisis has exacerbated these differences: Between 2008 and 2011, the unemployment rate for low-educated individuals increased by approximately 4 percent while it increased by only 1.5 percent for highly educated individuals.Between 2008 and 2011, the difference in earnings from employment between low and the highly educated rose from 75 percent to 90 percent.

— The United States is doing poorly in education relative to other countries: We rank 12th in terms of young people who complete a higher education degree; 10th in percent of young people who have graduate from high school education; and 22nd in the number of people who enter into higher education and then graduate.

As if the data themselves were not depressing enough, there is one other tragedy embedded in the report: we have heard it all before but have refused to heed the warning. For more than 30 years, since the publication of the ground-breaking report, "A Nation At Risk," we have been told time and again about our neglected schools and colleges.

Look at the following facts. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, states are spending 28 percent less per student on higher education in 2013 than they did in 2008; all but two states are spending less per student on higher education than they did prior to the recession; and 11 states have cut funding by more than one-third per student, and two states have cut their higher education spending per student in half.

You wouldn't know about these trends by looking at some of our politicians.Governors love their state colleges and universities, especially in the fall when they buddy up to the mass of voters at collegiate football games on Saturday afternoons.

Too many of them say the right things about the need for higher education, but too few go to battle for it; when it comes to action, their words too often have the impact of a falling feather.

But this story has one last twist.

It is we the people who elect the governors and many of their fellow politicians. To shift the full burden of blame onto them is both unproductive and immature. Ultimately, it is each of us who must take on the responsibility of spreading the word about what this nation needs to do and where we spend our precious dollars.That is what responsible citizens and grown-ups do.

We ignore the data on education at our own risk.The clock is ticking.As Eddard "Ned" Stark says in "A Game of Thrones," "Summer will end soon enough, and childhood will end."

Gene Budig, a former chancellor/president of three major state universities (Illinois State University, West Virginia University and the University of Kansas) and past president of Major League Baseball's American League, is chairman of The News-Gazette Board of Directors. Alan Heaps is a former vice president of the College Board in New York City.

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