MUTZ: Faster—faster—on education attainment

December 24, 2011

John MutzCan Indiana catch up with the rest of the world? It’s possible that most Hoosiers don’t realize how far behind we are when it comes to education after high school.

Only about 33 percent of Indiana adults have a quality two- or four-year degree. Among young working adults age 25 to 34, our rate is a bit better, at 36 percent. The U.S. attainment rate is 39 percent. But, at least 14 other nations have better records.

For the last four years, locally based Lumina Foundation has advocated reaching a rate of 60 percent by 2025. The Obama administration and its outspoken Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have advocated a similar goal. There, of course, have been critics who have downplayed the value of a higher or post-high-school degree. Still others doubt the possibility of attaining the goal. They cite the lack of resources or will of U.S. citizens to make the commitment to reach the goal.

All this skepticism has been expressed even when it is clear that over 70 percent of all new jobs in the future will require training well beyond high school.

This data raises complex and perplexing questions about the economic future of our state and nation. We are behind the curve and becoming less competitive all the time.

This startling reality became painfully clear to me during a recent vacation visit to Toronto, where the province of Ontario said in an economic development ad that 60 percent of its citizens already had quality degrees or certificates. In restaurants and hotels, we met young people who were students in Ontario’s public universities who clearly had foreign accents. When we asked why they came to Canada, the explanation was that their first choice was a U.S. university but our immigration policy would not allow them to come into the country. Some said they would stay in Canada.

The question for businesses, policymakers and educators is whether this deficit in educational attainment is serious enough to make it a national and statewide priority. Our international competitors have taken the challenge and are moving ahead quickly. Except for the need to curb the outrageous federal spending and debt problems, I believe improving the education level of all our citizens is the best way to solve our economic problems.

Ontario’s vision is “to have the most educated people and highly skilled work force in the world in order to build the province’s competitive advantage and quality of life.” The commitment, started in 2003, is supported by the premier, the Canadian version of governor, and includes his entire administration.

Actual attainment in Ontario is now 62 percent and the goal has been reset to 70 percent. The strategy includes recruiting 50-percent more international students to enhance the talent pool, the creation of the equivalent of a new university each year (20,000 new students), greater student aid including part-time students, and 15,000 new graduate openings.

In short, it is an all-out effort that takes precedence over other needs and wants.

In Indiana, we need to increase the capacity of our system and create new alternative ways to produce quality graduates. In addition, we must control the cost of education and reduce the need for student debt. Also necessary is an all-out effort to increase the training level of the existing work force as suggested in my earlier column titled “No adult left behind.”

At the heart of such an effort is a program to improve productivity at all educational institutions. In the longer run, it will be necessary to rethink how long high school should be, how long it should take to get a degree, better use of online technology, the proper place for the profit incentive in higher education, and where the money will come from to do all this.

The state’s education attainment needs to be relentlessly accelerated. To fail in this effort may substantially lower our quality of life and standard of living.•


Mutz has held leadership positions including lieutenant governor and president of Lilly Endowment and PSI Energy. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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