Higher ed offers path to prosperity

EDITOR’S NOTE: The presidents of five Northeast Ohio universities, shown at right, jointly wrote this column.

The facts are clear. Earning a bachelor’s degree leads to a healthier, more engaged and employable citizen. A typical college graduate of a four-year college or university earns nearly $1 million more than a high school graduate over their career, is less likely to be unemployed, is more likely to vote and lives seven years longer on average. It stands to reason then, that increasing the number of college graduates will lead to enhanced economic growth and better communities in our region, state and nation.

Despite this logic, we are not doing enough to promote higher education degree attainment in Ohio and if this trend continues we will all suffer in the long run.

Analysts predict that by 2025, 65 percent of working-age adults in Ohio will need a postsecondary degree to meet the workforce needs of the state’s employers. Unfortunately, at the current rate, only 43 percent of working-age Ohioans will attain the needed degree by 2025, a gap of 1.7 million.

The state’s public universities are working together to proactively address this issue. Over the last five years, we have adopted numerous measures to reduce student debt while increasing bachelor’s degree completion and better connecting degree holders to successful careers. This includes implementing recommendations from the Ohio Task Force on Affordability and Efficiency in Higher Education, which were designed to assist universities in offering an education of equal or higher quality while at the same time decreasing costs. Furthermore, our institutions took on the 5 Percent Cost Reduction Challenge, which has the goal of reducing the cost of earning a bachelor’s degree by 5 percent; and implemented individual College Completion Plans, which seek to increase the number of students earning post-secondary education credentials.

In addition, the state of Ohio has implemented the most comprehensive accountability funding formula for public universities in the country, a plan that was endorsed by all university presidents.

These initiatives are yielding results. For example, the number of associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees awarded by Ohio’s public universities and community colleges increased by 20.1 percent between 2010 and 2015.

However, we cannot do this alone. We commend the governor and the legislature for their recent efforts to increase state funding for higher education; however we also continue to argue that more work needs to be done. Funding-per-college-student is still 27 percent below the national average. In addition, need-based financial aid, which specifically targets the most at-risk students, has yet to return to pre-recession levels.

At a time when Ohio’s public universities play such an important role, the effects of the Great Recession have significantly impacted support for our universities. Continued progress on raising bachelor’s degree attainment levels, creating economic opportunity and driving economic development will require a continued partnership with state officials to enhance investment in and support for higher education. The pay-off will be a brighter, more prosperous future for Ohio.