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Friday, January 14, 2011

We need rocket scientists and poets

From the St. Petersburg Times Editorial page

A student graduating from a Florida community college with an associate's degree in science earns an average of $47,708. That's some of the good news from salary estimates released at a recent state Board of Education meeting, and the broader education community should take notice.

As Florida's students enter an ever more competitive world and workplace, it's important to draw the correct conclusions from that average salary and consider the larger context of how the state should be educating its citizens going forward. In a state with a population that is ever more diverse, Florida needs to have a broader array of educational opportunities that recognize and take advantage of that diversity. Universities, community colleges and public schools all have roles to play, and those roles should complement and dovetail, not compete.

First, what does that salary figure mean? It shows that adults can earn an associate's degree in a specific area and immediately make a good wage. It also means that not everyone needs a four-year degree to succeed, even in today's world. But it in no way lessens the value of a four-year degree, even if university graduates — typically younger than those earning a community college's two-year science degree — make less in their first jobs.

The state actually does need rocket scientists — we are, after all, home to the Space Coast — who have labored long hours in the lab even after their doctorates. It needs poets, and that English degree has value that can't be measured in take-home dollars. It also needs plumbers, electricians, technicians, carpenters and auto mechanics, jobs that can't be outsourced and some of which don't require an associate's degree, let alone a bachelor's.

That's where, at the high school level, career academies and technical training matter. Pinellas public schools, for example, are among those that have programs that can lead to industry certifications, qualifying students for good jobs at decent wages at graduation. For students who don't wish to attend college and know what they want to do, these are intelligent offerings. They may keep some students engaged, knowing that their course of study is teaching practical, employable skills.

As the state appropriately moves toward more rigorous graduation standards and end-of-course testing, these students should not be forgotten. They should pass tests of the same rigor as their college-bound peers — for example, Algebra I is now being required of everyone — but students on a technical track might demonstrate their proficiency on a test of algebra skills applicable to their practical field.

Not everyone needs a master's degree. But everyone deserves a chance to become a productive member of society earning a living wage.

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