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Oklahoma business leaders support college completion agenda

Higher education and business leaders agree that Oklahoma needs more college graduates to keep up with industry demands. But others argue the need to ramp up the state's graduation rates may be overblown.
by Silas Allen Published: July 16, 2012

The State Chamber has been a vocal supporter of Johnson's college completion goals and has called for greater expansion of programs related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, both at the common and higher education levels.

Robison pointed to the recent announcement that ASCO Industries, a Belgian aerospace company, would open a new production facility in Stillwater as an example of an industry with a growing footprint in the state.

During the announcement, company officials cited a strong workforce in the city, which is home to Oklahoma State University, a leader in aerospace technology.

Concerns expressed

But not everyone is thrilled with the state's recent push to produce more college graduates. Brandon Dutcher, vice president for policy at conservative think tank Oklahoma Council for Public Policy, said he's concerned the effort might do more harm than good.

The problem with pushing for more graduates in general, Dutcher said, is that students may end up leaving college deep in debt with a degree that doesn't guarantee a job.

Recent research seems to bear that concern out. An analysis of government data conducted for The Associated Press by Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies shows one in two recent college graduates are either jobless or underemployed.

According to the analysis, strong demand exists in science, education and health fields. But demand lags for graduates with degrees in arts and humanities, and median wages for those with bachelor's degrees are down from 2000.

Long-term effects

Leaving college with debt and limited job prospects has long-term effects on a person's professional and personal life, Dutcher said. If a recent graduate can't find a job to pay down debt, he said, that delays other major milestones like buying a home.

If the state does need more college graduates, Dutcher said he'd like to see officials be more precise about what areas they hope to see increase. He acknowledged that the state likely needs more graduates in certain areas, such as engineering, to keep up with industry demands. But he said he'd like to see decisions regarding college left up to students and parents, rather than being the subject of a major state initiative.

“I'm a little leery of the whole central planning mindset,” he said. “I just don't think it's a no-brainer that we need more college graduates.”