It is sometimes hard to communicate the importance of one thing without discounting the importance of another thing.
For that reason, I am going to state right up front what I want you to understand when you finish this column (call it a learning target): Increasing the percentage of Bullitt County citizens who have a bachelor’s degree is important AND pursuing a bachelor’s degree is not the only way to be successful, smart, or happy.
The statistics are what they are. Only 9.2 percent of Bullitt County’s citizens hold a 4-year bachelor’s degree.
The state average is 17.1 percent and the national average is 24.4 percent. Our county ranks 68th of 120, just above the middle, but quite a bit below my favorite county comparisons (Oldham 30.6, Jefferson - 24.8, Fayette – 35.6, Warren -24.7,&, Madison – 21.8). That sounds bad. But, when one looks at income per person, Bullitt County is above the state average at $22,791 and ranks 22nd of 120. Of the counties I mentioned, all but Madison have higher per capita income, but not by as much as one might expect.
There are many reasons behind this seeming contradiction. Most likely, it is largely the concentration of high wage manufacturing workers and especially retirees (Ford, GE, etc.) in Bullitt County. These folks didn’t necessarily have a degree, but they were earning more than many people who did. This leads to more confusion. If our wages are good in this county, why bother with college? The general rule, which still applies today, is that a person’s income is tied to that person’s level of education. But, you see, for every rule there is an exception. Some would say that with the evolution of the economy (new Ford workers comparatively don’t make quite as much as they used to) toward a knowledge base, college is more important than ever to be globally competitive. I would tend to agree with that, mostly.
I noted the other day that college tuition was going up again. When I started college28 years ago at WKU, a year’s worth of tuition and fees cost $1,030 and this year the same tuition and fees cost $8,722. Even without a calculator, you can see that is an 800% increase (as I recall, gas cost me about $1.20 a gallon then, so it should be around $9.60 a gallon now, right?). Is college still a good investment? I say probably it is, and part of that answer is because a college education is not just about earnings; it is about expanding one’s ability to think and communicate. Even from a purely economic perspective, it can still be a great investment, but it depends very much on what one choses to study. It is for this reason that the type of post-secondary education to pursue must be the most individual of decisions because there are so many factors involved. Rules of thumb just don’t cut it.
There are myriad opportunities for a smart, hard-working, young person who shows up and can pass a drug test. There is the university, there is the community college followed by university, there is the associate’s degree, there is technical school for almost any subject from Information Technology to Auto Repair (not much different really). There are also apprenticeship programs in the “blue collar” professions that are both financially rewarding and personally satisfying. There is military service, which is an outstanding option before or after post-secondary education. The main thing is to think deeply and carefully, set a course, and follow through. Many of our greatest leaders do not have a college degree, but on the other hand, many do.
The message I noted above is what I want readers to take away from this. If our students graduate from high school college or career ready, develop the proper habits of mind and behavior, and work hard, the future will be bright. The path to that future need not be the same for everyone.
As good old Confucius said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”