Our Opinion: Rosy state workforce stats a mixed blessing

Massachusetts residents have good reason to strut in the wake of news that the Bay State's workforce is the first-ever in the nation to contain a majority of bachelor's degree holders. The report from the non-profit Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, however, also reveals that underlying the good news are other statistics that it would be well for the state to heed and address.

An issue that has been attracting increased awareness nationwide is the growing income gap between the rich and the struggling middle class. This discrepancy is reflected in the wage differential that has ballooned in the Bay State between college-educated and non-college educated workers. According to the report, the median wage for a bachelor's degree holder in 1979 was 49 percent higher than that of someone who did not attend college. As of last year, that difference had grown to 99 percent. In and of itself, this would not be so much of a problem if more of the jobs that did not require a college degree paid a reasonable living wage, but real compensation for those jobs has remained essentially flat for the past 38 years while that of college-educated workers has grown by approximately a third. Meanwhile, the actual cost of living has risen dramatically since 1979, which exacerbates the difficulties lower wage-earners face in making ends meet.

Consequently, more are seeking any means possible to enroll in college. More education, of course, is a good thing for all residents of a state or community, but the environment for attaining it must be financially conducive or it can become a source of even greater problems.

For example, according to the MassBudget report, the cost of higher education has been increasing steadily while the state has decreased its higher education funding by 14 percent over the past 16 years. For many, the only way afford a degree is to assume a massive burden of student debt, which could cripple them financially for years after graduation.

So while on paper it may be gratifying that the state has so many college graduates among its ranks, the raw numbers do not take into account the hardship and privation that, in many cases, may follow in the wake of such achievement. Moreover, a financially-strapped worker — however they may have enhanced their earning power — is not going to be adding a great deal to the consumer economy if these increased wages fly out the window to service student debt.

This report is yet another compelling reason for the Legislature to do its utmost to prioritize education funding at every level. For example, were the state to increase sensible spending at the K-through-12 level, employers could be more assured of a higher quality of basic education in the general labor force, making better-paying jobs available to high school graduates without forcing them to obtain a college degree.

Making student loans more affordable would help those who go to college assimilate as fully-contributing members of society. It's a call Massachusetts citizens have made many times in the past, and we ought never to get tired of repeating it.


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