Every so often, we see a story that questions whether higher education is still worth pursuing. Typically, the story is about some budding entrepreneurs and exceptional individuals who are sometimes able to advance against the odds. The difficult reality, however, is that these anecdotes are not typical. Increasingly, the rare opportunities that may have existed in decades gone by — opportunities to make a sustained livable wage with a high school diploma — are becoming more rare. Indeed, more than two-thirds of new jobs require greater than a high school diploma.
To understand the value of higher education in our region, Columbia Basin College recently commissioned an independent study from EMSI, a firm specializing in regional economic impact modeling. Among the highlights, the report shows that CBC has an annual positive impact of $467 million on the regional economy, or 4.1 percent of local economic activity, nearly 12 times CBC’s annual budget. The report has much to say about CBC’s contribution to taxpayers, and how investment in CBC translates into economic opportunity for regional business. According to the report, taxpayers earn 11.4 percent annually on their investment in CBC and 7,891 jobs resulting from CBC-generated economic activity.
For the majority of high school graduates, additional education pays off over time. A CBC student’s average annual return on investment is cited at 16.7 percent in the latest report. On average, a student completing an associate degree sees wages increase $8,000 per year. CBC also offers several bachelor’s degree programs, which represent an average wage increase of $18,600 per year.
Additionally, for the wages many students are likely to earn with a high school diploma alone, it is very likely the 16.7 percent estimate is far too conservative for the typical CBC student, even as the Tri-City economy strengthens. Yet many prospective students do not take this opportunity, because they are unaware of the benefits, unsure of their ability to succeed, do not correctly value future earnings or fear the risk and debt. New high school graduates often lack the experience necessary to calculate and acknowledge this benefit, while research suggests that these students “on the fence” who continue their education at CBC outperform.
Wages are important, but wages alone do not tell the whole story. A good job will usually also offer benefits that include health insurance, retirement savings and paid leave. Wages are instrumental in developing a better life, but those who have attended or completed community college are equipped for a better job with good benefits that almost certainly outpace wages alone. At a certain level of household income, families value spending time in other productive ways — better work environments, flexibility, autonomy, spending time with family, the ability to become civically engaged, volunteer, vote and participate in meaningful activities around the community. Research shows that these “off the books” positive effects are likely substantial, yet immeasurable.
Academic skills also translate to a life of good decisions for which there are no published statistics. Continued higher education enables students to avoid scams, manage credit, make beneficial health choices, make sound personal finance decisions, mitigate personal risk, become more adaptable in hard times and have options to build on an educational foundation.
Nationwide, we understand tuition and student debt load has increased, and with it comes anxieties, doubts and challenges to the college education option. We take these challenges seriously and continuously look for ways to make college more accessible and affordable: through new BA programs, Running Start, new certificates and courses to meet local demand for skills, streamlining service in registration and guidance, or by reducing the burden of fees.
In a job market that is unlikely to fully recover for high school graduates, access and progress in higher education are more important than ever, bringing with it tangible and intangible benefits that cannot be only counted in a paycheck. This report shows that CBC continues to be a uniquely profitable investment in hard dollar and quality of life terms for the taxpayer, the student and the regional economy.
Dr. Jason Engle is the dean for organizational learning at Columbia Basin College. He is a University of Wisconsin graduate in political science.