Four numbers, when considered in their relationship to each other, should scare the heck out of anybody concerned about the future of Missouri's young people and the state's economy.
- Only 24.6 percent of Missouri's residents 25 or older have bachelor's degrees or higher (2009 figures). That ranks Missouri 34th in the nation.
- Missouri's state tax burden, the amount of state tax dollars per person spent on things such as higher education, is 44th lowest in the nation.
- Two-thirds of employers in the St. Louis region say they have difficulty finding qualified employees to fill open jobs.
- The difference between the yearly earnings capacity of somebody with a college degree and a person the same age with only an eighth-grade education is about $72,000.
Added up, these numbers mean that Missouri continues to short-change spending on education. The result is that fewer Missourians are getting the degrees they need to enter a workforce that needs them.
Jobs remain open or are filled by less-productive workers. And the economy suffers both in terms of reduced production and potential tax income from higher earnings.
This is Missouri's reality. All the talk about economic development schemes, some of which we support, emanating from the Capitol this week will be meaningless unless these numbers are reversed.
That should be a topic for discussion this week when the National College Access Network meets for its annual convention in St. Louis.
Educational professionals — those trying to help high school students afford college and those at the university level recruiting students — will discuss the nitty-gritty of how to prepare young people for higher education and how to make sure they have access to the tools they need.
There are tools available. The St. Louis Regional College Access Pipeline Project, for instance, is a cooperative of industry and education leaders working together to help more middle-class and low-income children afford the education that will give them hope for a brighter and more lucrative financial future.
That project demonstrates how important some business leaders consider higher education to this region and its linkage to the state's future.
But it will take more than nibbling around the edges to make a difference.
On Tuesday, higher education policy analyst Tom Mortenson of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education is scheduled to give a talk at the college access convention that asks the key question: "Can Higher Education Keep Up?"
In Missouri, the answer today is no.
Higher education is falling farther behind. And we're leaving behind our future earners, our employees, our taxpayers, our economic hope.
Here's another statistic: For the first time in our nation's history, the amount of debt parents and students owe for college loans has surpassed the amount of outstanding credit card debt. The change is easy to explain. States have stopped paying for higher education, and tuition has gone through the roof as a result.
The solution, too, lies in the numbers.
Missouri must decide to improve state support for higher education. That means higher taxes. Being a low-tax state hasn't worked any economic miracles. Maybe being an average-tax state would help.
That investment will pay dividends in individual and business financial growth, producing future revenue streams that, right now, are but a wistful dream.