Leaders must remember education works

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As our nation’s leaders in Washington, Denver and Colorado Springs deal with various versions of the fiscal challenges that grip our country as it emerges from recession, it’s important to remember what works.

And in the United States, in Colorado and in Colorado Springs, public post-secondary education works.

Education works to provide individual benefits I believe most of us fully understand. A college education is the dream of each succeeding generation. My parents dreamed of their only child achieving a college degree. Today’s parents dream the same dream for their children — a better life they understand can be possible through education. But with declining state support and rising costs, that dream is becoming harder for low- and middle-income families to achieve.

The individual benefits of a college education are well known but bear repeating. Each level of education past high school provides a boost to the paycheck that ranges from $81 a week for some college up to $625 a week for a master’s degree.

While the individual benefits of education are generally accepted, we often forget the societal benefits in our broader community. I want to ensure that we all remember these benefits as we think about difficult discussions about the future.

That $81- to $625-a-week individual paycheck boost produces positive ripples throughout our community. The single largest predictor of a community’s economic health is the education level of its citizens. In communities north to south, east to west, this fact is irrefutable.

For us, we need to look only to our northern neighbor. The median household income in Douglas County is $101,000. In El Paso County, it is $57,000. Correspondingly, almost 55 percent of Douglas County adults have a bachelor’s degree while 35 percent of El Paso County adults have a bachelor’s degree.

The same pattern is true for other Colorado cities and some of the nation’s most vibrant communities. Education levels equal income levels. Education equals lower unemployment. Education equals lower demand on social services. Education equals higher levels of engagement in making a community work. Community education levels are often a deciding factor for businesses seeking to relocate or start operations.

Education works.

Now, before I am accused of shameless boosterism for the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, let me be clear.

I am an advocate for all forms of education, not just the four-year bachelor’s degree or advanced (master’s and doctoral) degrees offered at UCCS. The first students in my teaching career were inmates in a federal prison who needed a high school diploma to become eligible for work release programs or early parole. I understand that a four-year college degree is not for everyone.

For years, El Paso County public schools have set the standard to graduate every high school student. They’ve done a good job, creating programs that challenge, inspire and often meet students where they are, including night and alternative school programs. But graduating from high school in our competitive, global, 21st-century economy is not enough.

Today’s high school diploma is not an automatic ticket to a job, home ownership or the other parts of the American Dream.

We need to inspire our young people to aspire to more than a high school diploma. Two years of post-high-school training, whether in a trade school environment or community college, or work toward a four-year degree is imperative for both personal — and societal — success.

Two years after high school will be the new normal, the new, minimum expectation for our sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, nieces and nephews.

How can we achieve this lofty goal of moving our community forward? We all must be involved. And that involvement can take many forms.

Each UCCS college has advisory boards where we seek the input of professionals to ensure our curriculum meets the needs of industry. We’re interested in what you have to say.

Business leaders should not hesitate to endorse the philosophies of former Colorado Springs City Council member, developer and community leader Bruce Shepard. When asked why he chose to create the Bruce and Anne Shepard Reach Your Peak Scholarship Program at UCCS, his response was priceless.

“Investing in the future is the only way to guarantee a return.”

Education works.

Pam Shockley-Zalabak is the chancellor at University of Colorado Colorado Springs.