On the value of education


California institutions of higher education, as well as those across the nation, are facing what experts are calling an “enrollment cliff.” Fewer students are going to college, in large part because of a population decline among college-age youth, but also because Americans have broadly lost faith that a college degree has value.

Yet, studies plainly show that a college degree “pays off,” now more so than ever in a labor market that values highly educated workers. In the year 2021, a California worker with a bachelor’s degree earned 62% more than a worker whose highest level of education was a high school diploma. While a new college graduate at their first job may not appear to make significantly more than a high school graduate who has been on the same payroll longer, over time college graduates accumulate three times the amount of wealth than households with less educated adults. Higher education is also most strongly correlated with future happiness throughout adulthood more so than any other variable. Even more significantly, society broadly benefits from higher education since those with a college degree are less likely to rely on social services or go to prison, and more likely to be engaged in civic activities. A college educated populace without a doubt drives economic as well as social progress.

Still the debate over the value of college rages on and has also come to fuel partisan politics. A New America survey in 2022 revealed that 73% of Democrats believe higher education has a positive effect on society, whereas only 37% of Republicans feel the same. A number of scholars have attributed Ronald Reagan with inciting our nation’s declining faith in higher education. When he took office as governor of California in the 1960s, he promptly began to dismantle public education by first targeting the University of California, Berkeley, what he considered a breeding ground for “spoiled children of privilege” attending orgies and protests.

And what about the Nikkei community? Have they disinvested in higher education? The Pew Research Center found that 52% of Japanese in America in 2019, both U.S. born and foreign born, had a bachelor’s degree or higher as opposed to 33% of all Americans. This percentage appears to have risen slightly since 2010 when 46% of Japanese Americans had college degrees. A closer look at the most recent census report, however, shows that Japanese Americans came in seventh among 17 Asian ethnicities in terms of average educational attainment as well as household income.

Moreover, Arthur Sakamoto’s 2011 study on single-race and multi-race Japanese Americans, which additionally factored in the outcomes of 1.5 generation Japanese Americans (people of Japanese ancestry born in Japan who immigrated to the U.S. as children), concluded that groups more closely related to Japan had higher levels of educational attainment. Indeed a number of studies on the “immigrant paradox” have documented how after the second generation, the children of non-immigrant parents are showing signs of declining educational outcomes. While rates of educational attainment are relatively high for Japanese Americans compared to the rest of the nation, our distance from our Issei and Shin-Issei forebears may ultimately lead to our undoing.

As we embark on a new year, how can we encourage all of our community members to consider pursuing higher education? A college education is in fact available to everyone. Accessible and affordable structured pathways exist through community colleges as well as the California State University system. For better health, resilience, economic stability and increased happiness, who will you encourage to go back to school in 2024?

Nichi Bei News columnist Amy Sueyoshi is provost and vice president of Academic Affairs at San Francisco State University., where she previously was the dean of the College of Ethnic Studies. She holds a Ph.D. in history from UCLA and has authored two books titled “Queer Compulsions” and “Discriminating Sex.” She is also the founding co-curator of the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco. She can be reached at sueyoshi@sfsu.edu. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei News.

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