My time as the supervisor of the Career Center at Valdez High School was devoted to helping students discover their adulthood.
As a career guide, my mantra for the students was this: “For 18 years, someone else has told you where to be and how to act. Bells ring to tell you where to go, the school creates your schedules and the school calendar, by which your family lives by."
“But,” I advised them, "the moment you graduate, you are in charge. And we promise no matter whether your dream is to become a mechanic or a marine biologist, we will provide the hard facts that will help you achieve that dream.”
The first, and hardest fact, is that earning power – how much money you can make in the U.S. – is almost entirely based on your education, no matter where you choose to live.
According to a May 2018 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, education is the most important link to earning power and unemployment rates.
A much-cited 2011 study by Georgetown University confirms the direct link to increasing earning power by attaining higher certifications, college degrees and other credentials.
In its executive summary, “The College Payoff,” the study concludes: “Obtaining a postsecondary credential is almost always worth it, as evidenced by higher earnings over a lifetime. The higher the level of educational attainment, the higher the payoff." What’s more, the gap is widening. In 2002, a bachelor’s degree holder could expect to earn 75 percent more over a lifetime than someone with only a high school diploma. Today, that premium is 84 percent.
A high school dropout can expect to earn $973,000 over a lifetime.
Someone with a high school diploma can expect to earn $1.3 million over a lifetime.
A worker with some college but no degree earns $1.5 million over a lifetime.
An associate’s degree-holder earns $1.7 million over a lifetime.
A worker with a bachelor’s degree will earn $2.3 million over a lifetime.
Graduate degrees confer even higher earnings. A master’s degree-holder earns $2.7 million over a lifetime.
A doctoral degree-holder earns $3.3 million over a lifetime.• A Professional degree-holder earns $3.6 million over a lifetime. “
Many VHS students had never experienced life outside their beautiful small hometown at the end of the Richardson Highway, on the waters of Prince William Sound. Arming them with hard facts and the truth about how they could realize their aspirations was the best part of my job.
It was also hard proof that the American dream works even for remote young Alaskans.
A menu of choices, both locally and Outside, were offered to VHS graduates. They could stay home and attend Prince William Sound Community College and even earn credit there during their high school years and jump-start their college careers. Many chose to go to the big cities – Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau – to attend other branches of the University of Alaska system, of which I myself am a graduate.
To say my job was rewarding is not enough. Young people are naturally afraid to leave their nests, no matter what condition their home life is. Many are inspired by the people around them and want to follow, to continue to contribute to Alaska.
I hope legislators will listen to the powerful wisdom coming from the commentaries and particularly the letters to ADN. “North to the Future” is not just a motto. Our more important economic engine – our education system – is under threat.
Terry Wilson has lived in Alaska since 1975. She is a former copy editor at the Anchorage Daily News. She lived in Valdez for 18 years.
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