Why a higher education is key in Tennessee

Greg Johnson, Knoxville News Sentinel

With the deadline for high school seniors to enroll in Gov. Bill Haslam’s first-in-the-nation offer of a free two-year postsecondary education now one month away, a report by 24/7 Wall Street shows how urgent and absolutely essential Tennessee Promise is to the state.

Tennessee is the least educated state in America.

“While roughly 30% of American adults had attained some form of higher education last year, less than one-quarter of Tennessee residents had at least a bachelor’s degree,” the report said. The data shows educational attainment dramatically affects quality of economic life.

“Like most states with low educational attainment rates, Tennessee households struggle to make ends meet,” the report said. “More than 17% of households relied on food stamps last year, more than in all but a handful of states. Adults who had not completed high school earned a median income of just $18,706, one of the lowest median earnings for Americans without a high school diploma.”

Correlations between education and income hold true at the county level as well. In East Tennessee, Knox and Loudon counties had the highest percentage of residents with bachelor’s degrees at 34.3 percent and 23.1 percent, respectively, according to Census Bureau data. Knox median household income in 2012 was $47,270 while Loudon County was $49,602.

Union and Grainger counties fell at the other end of the spectrum. In Union County, only 7.7 percent held bachelor’s degrees and the median household income was $33,456. Only 9.9 percent of Grainger Countians had a four-year diploma, and income there was slightly lower than in Union at $33,185.

Educational attainment affects poverty levels too. Both Knox (14.2 percent) and Loudon (14.6 percent) had poverty rates substantially lower than the state rate of 17.3 percent, while Grainger (20.2 percent) and Union (22.6 percent) were significantly higher.

Lack of educational attainment is now more punitive than ever. Bureau of Labor Statistics data for August showed the unemployment rate nationally for those with no high school diploma was 9.1 percent while those with some college or an associate’s degree was only 5.4 percent. For those with a bachelor’s degree, only 3.2 percent were unemployed.

Migration affects all the county-level numbers but this much is sure: Educational attainment is still the overwhelming determiner of economic viability, especially in this complex, globalized information age. Haslam’s plan gives Tennessee a chance of moving off the bottom and gives Tennessee’s students a chance at an incredibly better life.

Greg Johnson’s columns appear on Wednesdays, Fridays and the second Sunday of each month. Follow him on Twitter @jgregjohnson. Email him at jgregjohnson@hotmail.com.

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