A new report out from the Brookings Institution is a classic good news-bad news story for this state, and in particular, Oklahoma City. The question for policymakers is what to do with the information.
The report shows Oklahoma City with the second-lowest unemployment rate of the nation's 100 metro areas, based on data from May. Tulsa ranked sixth. That's the good news.
The bad news — actually, it's just not-so-good news — is that both cities were much farther down the rankings in the “education gap” category. The gap reflects the average years of education required by a city's average job vacancy compared with the average level of education attainment by the city's average working-age person.
Oklahoma City ranked 27th, Tulsa ranked 33rd.
The supply of educated workers compared with the demand is a real issue. The report showed that in Oklahoma City, more than 34 percent of all jobs require a bachelor's degree or higher level of education. Yet only 27.6 percent of all potential workers have that level of education. Fewer than 18 percent of unemployed workers have a bachelor's degree. The study also shows the demand for workers in Oklahoma City with a high school diploma is lower than the supply. Similar gaps exist in Tulsa.
For years, there's been talk and plans put in place to increase the number of college graduates in Oklahoma. But that's not the only takeaway from this report or recent comments from a visiting speaker who talked about education as an economic growth tool.
If Oklahoma continues to lag behind the nation in educational attainment, the struggle to grow our state's economy will only get more difficult. Employers aren't as likely to relocate or plan growth in a state without an adequate supply of highly educated workers.
One answer for policymakers is to stay the course of reforms designed to produce students who graduate from high school prepared for college-level work. Failure to do so has dire consequences for the state and for those students who face limited employment opportunities and a job market that's not as welcoming for adults without a college degree or at least some level of college education.
Of course, as we noted last week, this also means the education foundation of students preparing for high school needs shoring up.
Higher education officials also know they must do a better job of getting their students to the finish line. In his comments during a recent visit to Oklahoma City, Richard Petrick of the Business Alliance for Higher Education and the Economy mentioned a variety of efforts and factors impacting Oklahoma's efforts to produce more college graduates. One in particular stuck out.
Petrick talked about challenges for first-generation college students and that more structured academic programs and “intrusive counseling” for some students might help more of them reach the graduation stage.
Those thoughts are a bit off-track to conventional higher education thinking that places a premium on independence and students mostly charting their own course. But it might be a valuable point of discussion in a state with a fair number of students whose family history might have little or no college experience. Status quo thinking isn't likely to help Oklahoma close the education gap or grow our economy to a further position of strength.