Opinion: Recast education in Georgia as necessary and vital investment

No college dean today would ever utter the standard warning once given to first-year students at Georgia Tech.

“Look to your left, look to your right; only one of you will graduate.”

The message now to students at Tech and other public campuses is we want you to graduate, we need you to graduate and we’ll help you do so.

Once regarded as a personal benefit, a college degree today is now seen as an economic investment and boon for the state as a whole. Georgia faces a shortfall of educated workers necessary to grow the state’s economy and can’t afford indifference to college students leaving school without a degree.

At a legislative preview sponsored by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education on Friday, state education leaders delved into how to help high school graduates attain skills, degrees and credentials beyond high school.

This is not the headline-grabbing stuff of last year’s Legislature, which served up a red meat agenda of critical race theory, obscenity in school libraries and accusations of anti-Americanism in curriculums. That politically driven approach roused the conservative voter base but did little for the students of Georgia, many of whom lost their academic footing and their mental wellness during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, state education agencies outlined a series of needs that require the General Assembly forgo the melodrama and get into the more mundane but meaningful discussions of how to get more kids across the finish line.

The top officials, including the head of Georgia’s technical college campuses, advocated for a complementary system that made it easier for students to stack degrees and credentials, to progress seamlessly from a high school diploma, to technical school credential and, if they choose, to an associate degree and a bachelor’s degree.

Too few Georgians are doing so now.

For example, more than 103,000 Georgians graduated from high school in May 2016, according to the Partnership’s new report on the top 10 education issues in 2023. Five years later, nearly half of the class has not earned a postsecondary credential.

When industries consider locating in Georgia, their first questions are not about the incentives the state can offer, said former Gov. Sonny Perdue, who now serves as chancellor of the University System of Georgia. Their primary concerns, he said, are whether Georgia has enough people with the education and skill sets they need. Those skill sets often demand education and training beyond high school at technical schools or colleges.

Federal data shows about 40% of Georgians ages 25 and older hold a bachelor’s or an associate degree. The employment levels of those with more education exceed those of Georgians with only high school diplomas. For example, 86.8% of Georgians with bachelor’s degrees are employed, compared to 70.3% of those with high school diplomas. Worse off are Georgians who never finished high school; they have a 56.3% employment rate.

Not every Georgian needs to earn a college degree, said panelists, but they have to obtain credentials and training beyond high school to sustain a livable wage. And that goal has to be expanded to older Georgians and those with children. Amid a decreasing birthrate and fewer students graduating from high school, Georgia will have to persuade older people to retool and enhance their skills for the jobs of the future.

Amy M. Jacobs, commissioner of Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, warned that a dearth of child care options could prevent parents from enrolling in continuing education programs. COVID-19 decimated the child care industry, which has relied on federal relief aid to stay afloat, said Jacobs. With an hourly wage of $12, Jacobs said, “The workforce is the biggest challenge.”

The staffing crunch is also being felt in K-12 education, said Richard Woods, Georgia state school superintendent. “I am seeing shortages among basic general elementary teachers where the stack of resumes used to be a foot high,” he said.

A survey released last week by the Professional Association of Georgia Educators provides insights into what is dissuading Georgians from classroom jobs. The online survey of 5,641 educators found that about 39% of teachers and 62% of paraprofessionals have difficulty covering living expenses all or most of the time. Forty-five percent of educators in the survey report they hold a second job.

More than half of responding teachers — 55% — are unlikely to recommend a career in education. The top three reasons teachers with less than 20 years of experience debate leaving the profession are burnout, student behavior, and salary, according to the survey.

The Legislature resumes this week with major tasks on the school front: Develop an education master plan for an economy that demands workers who can continually learn and update their skills. With a dearth of high-skilled workers, the state has to prod more Georgians back into classrooms at the same time it is struggling to recruit and retain talented educators for those classrooms. Those are complex issues that won’t be solved quickly or cheaply.