Several years ago, William Simon, then serving as US Treasury Secretary, noted that in Washington, “people use statistics like drunks use lampposts – for support rather than illumination.” Recent efforts by officials in Georgia to pat themselves on the back for leading an “improvement” in the Peach State’s education performance prove Simon’s observation once again true. While Georgia’s high school graduation rate may have improved slightly – to 79% — this means a disappointing 21% of our state’s high schoolers drop out before receiving their diploma. One in five Georgia high school students fail to stick around long enough to gain the advantage of greater opportunity and increased earnings potential that comes with a high school degree.
Moreover, when Georgia’s dropout rate is compared to other states and countries, there is far less to crow about. In Canada, for example, one of Georgia’s top trading partners, more than 90% of its student stay on to graduate. Even within our own state, in a number of school districts, the dropout rate exceeds 50%. Looking at all this with the blinders on that many public officials wear when evaluating their own performance, perhaps a tiny improvement in a miserable situation is worthy of beating one’s chest; but in the fast-paced and technologically-based world out there, a 21% dropout rate is hardly impressive.
At the next level – post-secondary education — the steadily increasing cost of higher education is pushing many young people who might previously have competed eagerly for college slots, to forego applying for admission. Many students are willingly trading the long-term benefits of a college education for the short-term lure of a paying job.
Increases in tuition are only part of the problem facing many working-class and middle-class families with college-age children. As one small but telling example, the Board of Regents recently approved an increase in fees of $100 that is being passed on to the state’s public university students. That’s an extra $100 out of each student’s pocket, not covered by the HOPE scholarship. For students considering private universities, the average cost of tuition and fees is now some $34,000. The staggering cost of attending school beyond high school is leading many students and their families to conclude that high school itself may no longer be essential because they cannot afford to take the next step of attending college.
The emerging wave of education disinterest sweeping across Georgia and much of our nation’s population, ill-equips our young people to understand, much less contribute to solving the serious political, economic, and technological problems facing us domestically and in our competition with other nations that value education far more than we appear to.
As one of our Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, accurately observed more than two centuries ago, “[i]f a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” This vital link between freedom and education is fast fading in the public consciousness of 21st Century America. A nation uneducated is not and cannot be free, nor will its people know the happiness that comes from liberty. As our first president, George Washington, aptly observed, “[k]nowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.” As knowledge fades, so does happiness; and this may explain in large measure the sour mood prevalent in our country today.