Friday, June 27, 2014

How Many College Grads Are Enough?

Beyond maybe becoming a better person, I suppose getting a job is also nice.

I don't know the answer to my own question, but it occurred to me after I republished The Street article about the smartest and dumbest states in America that the question is worth considering. Of course, the language in The Street's article is provocative, and that may well be why I liked it. But the truth is that The Street's central metric -- the percentage of college graduates in a given state -- is not necessarily an accurate measure of smartness or dumbness. George W. Bush went to Yale and Harvard. Case closed.

Yet it might still be a reliable framework. The "smartest" state by this metric is Massachusetts, with 38.2% of its residents having a bachelor's degree. It makes sense since Massachusetts has such an abundance of top colleges and universities. I don't even need to name them. And if you go through the list of smart and dumb states, the median income does a good job of tracking education levels. More college grads equals higher pay. That's almost American Dream 101, it's so accepted by conventional wisdom. Massachusetts is sitting pretty at $65,339, 5th highest in the land.

But that brings up things we easily gloss over, such as the fact that the state with the highest number of college grads has almost two-thirds of its residents with only a high-school diploma or less (okay, some people dabble in college or drop out, or just achieve a two-year associate's degree). So, how much is enough to make a state likely to be a success? And what happens to all the non-college grads? Do they just languish in the lower classes?

I don't know the answer, but I've got a few guesses and observations. First, I get why the state with the lowest college-grad percentage, West Virginia at 17.3%, might have fallen on hard times -- if it ever had good times (well, of course it did, right?). It's a coal-mining state and home to a great swath of Appalachia. It's 48th in median income and sports a very high poverty rate. They make movies about how life stinks in West Virginia. (Note. I wrote the previous sentence before researching its veracity; it turns out the movies I was thinking about -- Winter's Bone, Songcatcher, and Coalminer's Daughter -- were written about Arkansas, North Carolina, and Kentucky. Oh well, they're good movies about the same circumstance, poverty in the mountains of the Southern states.)

Still, West Virginia nowadays isn't for the faint-hearted, regardless of any John Denver song. No offense to any West Virginia native: Like all the states of the Union, it has its special natural beauty, vibrant history, and trials and tribulations. I'm just saying that a state in a slump whose main industries are coal-mining and lumber is bound to have a number of challenges, not the least of which is having a habit of chopping the top off of its mountains.

West Virginia: Here's to the job creators! We need jobs, not mountains!

I bet if I had a little time, I could find some great spots in West Virginia, and I repeat, the people there are just as good and deserving as those in any other state. Forbes placed Morgantown, West Virginia, at #10 on its list of best towns in America for careers and business, in spite of its median income of $36,636, as compared to San Rafael, California -- a town of approximately equal size -- with its median income of $61,441. Don't always trust these "10 Most fill-in-the-blank" studies.

So why am I writing about the 10 smartest or dumbest states? Food for thought. And here's the thought that remains at the end of the day: What are the educational, environmental, health, and budget priorities that any given state should follow to better itself? Chopping off the top of mountains can't be a very good priority, or am I missing something?

Does West Virginia chop off its mountain tops because it has fewer college grads or in spite of it?

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