Thursday, October 6, 2011

Wisconsin's Economy Needs Affirmative Action

On this, Republicans and Democrats throughout Wisconsin can agree: the state's economy is in the tank. We need to find ways to create more jobs and grow our paychecks, and fast.

An overwhelming body of evidence shows that state and local economies are greatly enhanced by educating their workforces. Employers build and expand businesses where they can find educated talent and thriving communities where their employees can live. An under-educated population in a landscape with significant pockets of poverty does not make for a hospitable place to do business.

A college education pays off. Sure, more people are going to college, and that makes some people worry that the returns will diminish. But just look around: the unemployment rate of college graduates may be up slightly, but it's still half that of workers without college degrees. You have to like those odds. The chances that you will end up mired in poverty, dependent on government benefits, unable to send your own kids to college--these are greatly reduced if you complete at least a year of college.

This is common sense, and people know it. What they may not realize is that a college education pays off MORE for the people who are least likely to get it. Those kids who we might consider "long shots" when it comes to earning a college degree face the worst labor market prospects if they don't attend college-- so going to college gives them a huge boost. And they benefit even more if they not only attend college, but attend where with the resources and advantages improve their odds of finishing -- places like UW-Madison.

Data proves this: the best way for the people of Wisconsin to maximize the contribution of a college education to their economy is to ensure that the kids who are the "long shots" get to attend its most selective universities. Yes, those individual kids will benefit-- but even more importantly, we all will. The returns to helping them avoid poverty and become gainfully employed taxpayers accrue to the whole state.

This is why affirmative action works for Wisconsin. It helps extend educational opportunities to those who will reap the biggest benefits, which spill over to us all. Without some attention paid to a student's ability to benefit from college, selective colleges would admit only the "sure things"--students who will actually benefit the least. Sure not all of the "long shots" will succeed--but large numbers of them will, far more than those who would if they only attended non-selective colleges. And as for the rest of us, working hard and raising "sure thing" kids, we are not harmed by that extra attention to the "long shots" (the idea that we are being "penalized" is a statistical fallacy), and because benefits to a college education acrrue to communities, we are actually helped.

Affirmative action is in Wisconsin's best interest, and it's within our rights. It's time to stand up for a policy that efficiently uses a college education to grow our economy.

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