Workforce development is economic development. Countless studies point to the return on investment that accompanies increased spending on higher education, and business leaders regularly note that one of the greatest barriers to growing their business is a shortage of skilled workers. Unfortunately, the Governor’s 2019 budget recommendation for the State of Missouri, which includes $68 million dollars in cuts to higher education, falls short in making our state’s workforce the priority it should be.
Employers across the St. Louis region and the state of Missouri regularly cite a skilled workforce as critical to their companies’ ability to grow and thrive. According to the State of the St. Louis Workforce Report released in 2017, employers’ top concern today is not government regulation or current economic conditions, but finding the right talent. At the St. Louis Regional Chamber, we hear this same concern from employers considering St. Louis as a possible location for expanding their business. They often use the concentration of people who possess an Associate’s degree or higher as a primary indicator to judge the health of the region’s economic climate.
The cuts to higher education threaten Missouri’s ability to compete nationally and globally. The proposed cuts would undermine our ability to provide more people a quality post-secondary education at precisely the time when it is becoming increasingly more essential both for business and individuals. Cutting investment in higher education increases college costs, primarily shifting the burden to students. It reduces critical support services at state institutions that are essential to helping students successfully complete their degrees or credentials. Moreover, it expands an already wide gap in who can afford the post-secondary credentials needed to thrive in our economy, ensuring that higher education has become a privilege of the affluent rather than an essential resource for all residents.
Economic prosperity for individuals has become increasingly tied to their ability to obtain credentials beyond high school. New data by the Bureau of Labor statistics proves that post-secondary education is essential for finding jobs in today’s economy. At the same time, growing tuition rates and the fear of accumulating debt have discouraged a significant number of people from considering college an option. When our state budget reflects the notion that higher education is not a priority, it contributes to a narrative that suggests “college is not worth it” despite the reality of economic data suggesting the opposite.
Investment in higher education is fundamentally an investment in the public good. While we know that higher education is essential for career and workforce preparation, its value to the public at large exists beyond that. Higher education prepares critical thinkers, innovators, creators, entrepreneurs and change agents. This benefits all of us. Our society and our democracy is stronger because of education at all levels. Leaders across the state of Missouri must work together to prioritize what we know is essential for job creation and continued economic development: increased educational attainment. A college degree should not be considered a commodity only available to those with financial means—an alarming scenario created by the kinds of cuts to higher education proposed in the state budget.
While we applaud a number of the Governor’s recommendations for education funding, specifically significant increases in K-12 funding as well as a $2 million increase to Access Missouri, our state’s need-based aid program. We remain concerned, however, that these increases will be insufficient if funding for higher education is not considered the priority it needs to be, if post-secondary education is out of reach for so many of Missouri’s students.
We urge members of the General Assembly to remember that our state’s most valuable asset is its people. We can only create jobs, fill those jobs, and ensure economic opportunity for people living in Missouri if we make post-secondary education more accessible and affordable, not less so.