In a speech to the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce earlier this year, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan warned that U.S. workers must be better educated if they are to find jobs in a rapidly changing economy. He said we must provide “rigorous education and ongoing training to all members of our society,” and went on to note that better education in elementary, middle, and high schools was needed to increase the wages of lower-skilled workers and to diminish growing income inequality.
This stark reality appears to have hit home in Ohio, one of the few states where jobs and the economy outranked Iraq and terrorism in the priorities of voters in the weeks leading up to election day. Since the last presidential election, in 2000, Ohio has lost a quarter of a million jobs, including 180,000 within the manufacturing sector. It has seen the unemployment rate rise from 3.9 percent to 6.3 percent.
To their credit, the people of Ohio seem to understand Greenspan’s warning and appear willing to embrace his advice. In fact, according to a recent poll, “Ohio’s Education Matters,” an overwhelming majority-85 percent-of Ohioans say that they want the state to “focus on increasing high school graduation rates and college-going rates, for all students, and they want the state to ensure that all students are academically prepared for college if they choose to attend.”
“I find it encouraging that Ohioans seem to understand the importance of higher education to this state,” said Chad Wick, president and CEO of KnowledgeWorks Foundation, which conducted the poll. “But we have a lot of work to do in Ohio if we are going to match reality with the public’s desire for a better education system that works for all students.”
Currently, Ohio has an overall high school graduation rate of 70.7 percent, which is slightly higher than the national average of 68 percent, according to research by the Urban Institute. However, in urban areas the graduation rate takes a nosedive-in Cleveland (a 30 percent graduation rate), Columbus (34.3 percent), Cincinnati (32.4 percent), and Toledo (38.8 percent), for example, the rates are dismal.
Even among those students who do manage to graduate from high school, most face an uphill battle in college. In Ohio, while 59 percent of high school graduates go directly to college after high school, only 55 percent of first-year freshmen in four-year degree programs earn a bachelor’s degree in six years or less. In addition, 39 percent of first-year freshmen in universities and colleges across the state had to take at least one remedial course in the 2001-02 school year.
These results are reflected in the KnowledgeWorks survey, which found that only 58 percent of participants think that graduating high school seniors have the skills to succeed in college-an 8 percent drop from a 2002 study. When it comes to success in the economy, only 48 percent of
Ohioans think that graduating high school seniors have “necessary skills and training to succeed in full-time jobs”-a 14 percent drop from two years ago.
The report found that a “low-skilled workforce and lower earnings for workers hampers Ohio’s economy” and that low college-attainment levels in Ohio have “reduced the state’s per capita income, above the national average 40 years ago, to below the average per capita income nationally today.” Statewide, this loss reflects an aggregate cost of $17.5 billion in total lost personal income.
Realizing the need for a highly skilled labor force in the future, 91 percent of Ohioans think it is “very important” or “somewhat important” for the state to increase the percentage of students who go to college. In addition, 85 percent of respondents think it is “very important” for the state to increase the percentage of urban high school students who receive their high school diploma, and 86 percent believe that the state should set a goal of all students graduating from high school. Finally, 96.1 percent of Ohioans strongly agreed that “education is essential for a democratic society and a healthy economy,” with 72 percent saying that they would protect and defend education as they would freedom.
The public in Ohio also appears to be supportive of ongoing strategies to help improve public high schools and raise college enrollment among their graduates. Nearly 76 percent of survey respondents agreed that students were more likely to drop out of large high schools with one thousand or more students than they were from schools with fewer than four hundred students. A movement is already underway in Ohio, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to create more of these small schools. This fall, nearly 25,000 Ohio high school students started the school year in fifty-eight autonomous small schools. Previously, these students would had been bunched into eighteen larger, comprehensive high schools.
“Public expectations for the education system are high,” Wick said. “That message from Ohioans should help keep us on the course of transforming the education system in this state so that all children have an opportunity to succeed.”
The complete polling results are available at http://www.kwfdn.org/poll/2004/.