My Turn: Community colleges can help counter demographic realities
If New Hampshire is to be well-positioned “to lead the country in innovative economic growth” as Gov. Maggie Hassan forthrightly suggests, we must address certain demographic realities. Chief among those realities is that our population is aging more rapidly than any other state and our workforce growth is nearly zero.
These demographic trends have been developing for a long time and can’t be quickly or easily reversed. It is not that our young people are leaving in large numbers as much as that their parents are aging and the in-migration of young adults from other states has virtually ceased.
The challenge for our state is to think about what we can do to mitigate the negative effects of a fast aging population combined with very little workforce growth. It is here that our community colleges – with their relatively low tuition, presence in all regions of New Hampshire and offerings aligned with industries that are growing and looking for skilled workers – have an essential role to play.
The facts are these: Over the past 20 years, New Hampshire has moved from being an average age state to being the nation’s third oldest state, with more than half our residents over age 40. Our state’s median age (41.5 years) rose well beyond the nation’s so rapidly, not because a larger fraction of our adults became elderly, but because of a diminishing number of young adults and their children.
The result of these trends was that by 2011 the share of New Hampshire’s adults younger than age 35 had fallen to 26 percent, well below the 31 percent nationwide. This means we now have about 50,000 fewer young people under age 35 than if we had remained an average age state. This is important because as these young adults come of working age they are the primary drivers of future
workforce growth, as well as our long-term economic well-being.
What this suggests is that if our state is to have solid economic growth then it’s imperative that New Hampshire’s young adults coming into the future workforce have superior job skills to offset the adverse effects of their smaller numbers. The concept is that making workers more valuable and productive will increase earnings over time and drive economic growth, even if their numbers are smaller.
The essential component of this concept is our state’s community college system. It provides at a very modest cost (At most, $6,500 per year for two years) the means by which individuals can obtain the skills they need to get one of the better paying professional or technical jobs, or get the preparation they need for achieving a university degree.
Right now, for example, there are about 150,000 young men and women in New Hampshire who are ages 25 to 34, nearly all of whom are already in the workforce. But 40 percent of the men and 25 percent of women that age have not obtained any education beyond a high school diploma, and thus will likely have below average earnings.
Workers in this state who do not have any post-secondary education suffer a substantial loss of income over their working life. The most recent American Community Survey by the Census Bureau found that a New Hampshire worker with an associate’s degree from a community college annually earns on average about $10,100 more than if that worker had no education beyond high school.
That survey also found that by just taking some college level courses at one of our seven community colleges high school graduates here could increase their annual earnings by at least $4,500.
That earnings advantage increases over time in large part because workers who take some college level courses or obtain an associate’s degree are more likely to be employed full-time year-round and less likely to be unemployed than those without any college course work.
Surveys taken over many years here have shown that just by obtaining a two-year associate’s degree, New Hampshire workers can add $500,000 or more to their lifetime earnings. That means a significant boost to both individual’s personal income and the state’s consumer economy.
Suppose, for example, a way could be found to persuade just another 15 percent of New Hampshire men ages 25 to 34 to go to one of New Hampshire’s seven community colleges. That would raise the percent of those young men with post-secondary job skills from 60 to 75 percent, to equal the percent of women that age with some college after high school.
That would provide more than 11,000 New Hampshire men ages 25 to 34 with job skills that could add an average of an estimated $5,400 to their annual earnings, assuming that some would just take the courses they needed to upgrade their skills while others would earn an associate’s degree. But in the aggregate that would add at least $59 million to the state’s household income each year.
That example is just another way of illustrating this simple fact: Any education beyond high school will mean higher earnings and a better future for the men and women of our state. The challenge is how to convincingly make that point to anyone who is in high school today or who lacks the skills that today’s employers require.
We probably can’t reverse our state’s long-term demographic trends anytime soon. But what we can do and must do is to substitute increasing job skills and the consequently rising personal income for the forecasted absence of population or workforce growth.
(Peter Francese is a demographic trends analyst who lives in Exeter and co-author of the book “Communities & Consequences” about New Hampshire’s future.)