Opinion Columns & Blogs

Bernie Koch: Higher education grows economy

Kansans should be seriously concerned about the Legislature’s budget cuts and the resulting tuition hikes at Kansas public universities. They will most certainly have an impact on our economic recovery and future growth or decline.

The link between higher education and the economy is often cited, but rarely demonstrated with specifics. Nevertheless, there’s a surprising amount of serious economic research that reveals substantial evidence of this connection.

Harvard University professor Robert J. Barro has done groundbreaking work on education and economic growth. Barro studied roughly 100 countries around the world at different levels of economic progress during the time frame of 1960 to 1995. His findings show a strong connection between economic growth and higher education:

•  Secondary and higher education levels for males 25 and older have “a positive and significant effect on the subsequent rate of economic growth.”

•  An additional year of higher education “raises the growth rate on impact by 0.44 percent per year.”

•  Data on students’ scores on internationally comparable examinations in science, mathematics and reading are used to measure the quality of schooling, and “scores on science tests have a particularly strong positive relation with economic growth.”

Barro’s research and conclusions are central to many of the economic and public policy debates of the past three decades. A mass of other economic research backs up these findings. I should add that Barro is no liberal. He’s written for the Wall Street Journal and is recognized as an outspoken critic of Obama administration economic policies.

What does this mean for Kansas?

Whether you agree that there’s waste at the Kansas Board of Regents institutions or not, constant tuition increases make it more difficult for students to obtain a higher education. That affects the quality and quantity of the labor force in a negative way. If we increase the higher education level, we should see an increase in economic growth. If we allow the average education level to decline, we will see a decrease.

Especially troubling for the south-central Kansas economy is the revelation that typical Wichita State University tuition has increased about 36 percent over the past five years. At the same time, WSU president John Bardo has said that filling vacant positions and retaining good instructors has become difficult, including many at WSU’s College of Engineering.

That can’t possibly be good for the aerospace industry, an anchor of our state economy.

Kansas must make a serious attempt to remove the growing obstacles to obtaining a higher education for those who want to pursue one, including prohibitive tuition rates and shortages of quality faculty.

Otherwise, no amount of tax cuts will offset the damage.