County lags nation in bachelor’s degrees

More than 30% of Americans have earned one

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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Reaching a record high in 2011, more than 30 percent of Americans 25 and older have earned at least a bachelor’s degree, according to a report released Thursday by the Census Bureau.

“We believe this is a notable milestone,” said Kurt Bauman, the Census Bureau’s chief of education and social stratification.

While 2011 estimates for individual states and counties have not yet been released, Washington exceeded the national average in 2010 with 31.1 percent of people 25 and older holding bachelor’s degrees. Clark County trailed the nation in 2010 with 24.6 percent, due in part to its history of blue-collar jobs and lack of local access to education.

The growth in bachelor’s degrees has been buoyed by a shift to a knowledge-based economy, global competition and the recent recession, according to local experts.

“If you want a job today, you need some kind of postsecondary education,” said Greg Kulander, executive director of Vancouver’s nConnect. The nonprofit organization advocates for high school students to go to college through a variety of services in Southwest Washington high schools.

Clark County has long struggled with low educational attainment.

“Our education level is determined largely by what kind of jobs are here,” said Scott Bailey, regional labor economist for the Washington Employment Security Department. “Clark County has relatively fewer jobs that require a four-year degree or higher compared with other areas. For instance, in Seattle, with Microsoft, there is huge demand (for people with bachelor’s degrees) in the software industry.”

Washington State University Vancouver was established as a branch campus in 1989 to address Clark County’s low educational attainment, said Nancy Youlden, the campus’s vice chancellor of student affairs.

Like the nation at large, WSU Vancouver has seen a steady increase in granting bachelor’s degrees. The university’s enrollment has increased since its debut and boomed before the recession, when Clark County was the fastest-growing county in the state, Youlden said. Since the recession, however, enrollment has continued to grow, albeit at a slower rate. Enrollment reached 3,143 in Fall 2011 compared with 2,295 in Fall 2007, just before the recession, said Brenda Alling, WSU Vancouver spokesperson.

“The reason we’re still growing, I think, is the economy,” Youlden said. “People are going to school either because their job is not going anywhere or they’ve lost a job.”

The number of bachelor’s degrees granted annually by WSU Vancouver has increased from 38 in 1990 to 917 in 2011, Alling said.

Kulander said people are beginning to realize that without a degree, they will have fewer job prospects in an economy that has been more and more competitive both nationally and globally.

About 67 percent of jobs in Washington state will require a bachelor’s degree by 2018, Kulander said.

Americans with at least a bachelor’s degree generally earn more income than those with less education, with the exception of certain fields, according to the Census Bureau study. For example, a two-year degree in engineering or technology fetches more income than a four-year degree in liberal arts.

Degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics will be most in demand in the coming years, Kulander said.

Americans with bachelor’s degrees also were more successful at weathering the recession. During peak unemployment nationwide, the rate of unemployment was 17.9 percent for high school dropouts and 5.9 percent for people with a bachelor’s degree.

That trend is apparent in Clark County, where unemployment is highest among low-skilled workers with jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree, Bailey said. The greatest number of unemployment claims in January came from production workers, construction workers, customer service representatives, cashiers, truck drivers and home care aides, Bailey said.

Despite progress in educational attainment, the nation is still falling behind other countries. It dropped from 12th to 16th in the percentage of people, ages 25-34, with college degrees, according to a report earlier this month by the British-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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