As we’ve said before, one of West Virginia’s biggest challenges to creating stronger economic growth and better paying jobs is increasing the number of workers with a college degree. Unfortunately, as Chris pointed out here and here, the state and the federal government are making it increasingly more difficult to attend college by raising the cost of tuition and subsidized loans.
As the chart below highlights, only one in four workers (25.6%) in the Mountain State had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2012. Just five other states – Wyoming, Arkansas, Nevada, Mississippi, and Louisiana – had a smaller share of their workforce with a college degree. As we’ve shown previously, this is important because states with a high share of their workers with a college degree tend to have higher median wages or better paying jobs. As we know, better paying jobs are the key to better health, a better tax base, better economic mobility, and less crime.
While our state has struggled to transition to the “new economy” – which tends to be geared toward only rewarding those with a college degree – the state has made significant progress in educating its workforce over the past several decades.
In fact – and this may surprise many of you – our state has made more progress in educating its workforce than any other state over the past several decades.
Between 1979 and 2012 the share of West Virginia’s workforce with a college degree increased by nearly 200 percent or from 8.7 percent to 25.6 percent. This was the highest increase in college workforce attainment in the country (see chart below). The next closest was Alabama at less than 150 percent.
In 1979, West Virginia ranked dead last in the country with only 8.7 percent of its workforce with a college degree or higher (Arkansas was 49th with 11.1%). What this also shows us is how overly reliant our labor force and state was on jobs that did not require a college degree. While moving from 50th in labor force college attainment to 45th in the nation doesn’t seem like substantial progress, it actually is. And we should be proud.
That said, if we want to continue making progress and build a more sustainable and vibrant economy, we will need to make investments in our kids and make it easier for them to attend and pay for college. This starts by ensuring that we have the resources to make it happen and the political will to get it done.
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