By Eli Capilouto
University of Kentucky President In the wake of the First World War, former University of Kentucky President Frank L. McVey believed that the university needed to be viewed “as more than an economic asset. It served, in fact, as an essential component of the well-being of the state…” In his words, he concluded that, “what will save this nation after the war are the universities.”
Our mission today is more varied and far reaching than during President McVey’s tenure. We educate more students each year than at any time before, and the academic, research, and health care missions envisioned by Dr. McVey are now a reality. Though we are different today, the critical nature of our work to support the prosperity of our state remains the lodestone of the Commonwealth’s future. We are the University for Kentucky. Across a full spectrum of measures of personal and community well-being, education is a uniting and uplifting factor. Higher educational attainment is a positive indicator of higher income and employability. Incarceration rates, the utilization of public services, and health care costs decrease as our more of our population earns a postsecondary credential. An investment in education builds a quality workforce and mitigates growing public expenditures for corrections, health care, and public support services. These outcomes are present statewide and are inarguable. An October 2015 report by UK’s Center for Business and Economic Research concluded that the income benefits through education are not limited to Kentucky’s urban areas, but also experienced in the western and eastern parts of the state. They found: “A family where the head of the household has an Associate’s degree has 29 percent higher total income than a family where the householder is a high school graduate. Even more striking, earning a Bachelor’s degree leads to a 56 percent higher family income than the family headed by a high school graduate.” – Christopher R. Bollinger, Ph.D. The income gains are not solely limited to higher salaries. Higher degree attainment correlates with higher employability, which means that degree recipients have an easier time finding and maintaining employment. These facts alone have enormous implications for Kentucky. And still, the university’s role as an essential component of the state’s wellbeing extends beyond employment data. The health maladies of the Commonwealth are well documented. It’s an important policy and research question to which the faculty, staff and care providers at the University of Kentucky are deeply devoted. Poor health behavior trends - smoking, tobacco use, obesity and sedentary lifestyle choices – impact the rate of Kentucky’s top chronic illnesses: heart attack, chest pain, stroke and diabetes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, high incidence rates for these illnesses cost Kentuckians an estimated, “$5 billion annually in lost days at work and medical bills.” However, in each case, higher degree attainment results in lower rates of poor health behavior and chronic illness. By increasing education outcomes for Kentuckians, we can lower the expensive health care costs associated with these illnesses and improve quality of life. According to CBER’s assessment (2015), if we can achieve, “education attainment rates comparable to the rest of the U.S., Kentuckians could save nearly $200 million annually in health care costs.” Still, the returns go further. Nearly one million Kentuckians receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Supplemental Security Income. Utilization rates for both programs are higher for those with only a high school degree, but decrease with additional educational attainment. CBER concluded (2015), “that by simply adding 1 percent to Associate’s degrees and Bachelor’s degrees, we could reduce Kentucky’s participation rate by 0.3 percent, moving over 5,000 families off food stamps.” The subsequent savings would total in the millions. Not only does education pay personally, increasing household income, but rising tax revenues, also help manage the escalating costs of social welfare programs. These are the questions of our day: How do we help more people prosper? How do we manage growing cost of critical safety net programs? How do we build a quality workforce in Kentucky? How do we position the Commonwealth as a place for business? How do we improve the health and welfare of the people we serve? Higher education can be a uniting factor across these complex questions. It isn’t the only answer, but there is a compelling case for further investment in Kentucky’s colleges and universities. CBER’s research series -- and the work UK faculty, staff, and care givers every day -- illustrates the dramatic return on investment in higher education. We cannot ensure a brighter tomorrow for Kentucky by shutting off the economic engine of the state today. The decisions we make today about investment in that engine will, without question, determine how bright that future will be for our children and those who will follow. What choice will we make?
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