Every year, local business and government leaders go to the Kern County Economic Summit expecting to view graphs and pie charts that help describe the region’s fiscal health. They show up to hear experts crunch data into digestible narratives about the pace of the southern San Joaquin’s growth.
And every year they walk away with a renewed appreciation for the preeminent role of education, among all other factors, as a force for positive change both proven and potential.
It happened again this week, when 500 people representing dozens of local institutions, public and private,packed the DoubleTree Hotel ballroom to hear authoritative presentations on health care, real estate, banking and technological innovation. All eventually led back to the same theme: The continuing need for young, fresh, educated minds that only our local institutions of higher learning can provide.
Many already know the backstory here, but to recap: Kern is among the five least educated counties in California, with a high proportion of residents that has neither a four-year college degree nor a high school diploma. Although education reform in the last two decades has made great strides in high school retention rates, only about 77 percent of students complete high school here, among the worst rates in the nation.Separately, Bakersfield was recently ranked the worst city in the U.S. for overall reading culture. The study, by Central Connecticut State University, noted that the “low demand for reading materials (in libraries, bookstores, and periodical subscriptions) could reflect low educational attainment rates.”
But enrollment has steadily grown at most Kern County institutions. Bakersfield College is bursting at the seams, due in part to the happy inconvenience of having added new vocational programs. California State University Bakersfield has begun what looks to be a successful transition from commuter campus to destination institution, thanks to new programs such as those associated with its engineering school.
And now we all watch as the needle begins to move. It need not move much for us to see dramatic incremental improvements.
As reported in The Californian Thursday, small additional increases in enrollment can make big differences, as Richard Gearhart, a CSUB assistant professor of economics who spoke at the summit, spelled out:
• Decreasing the number of high school dropouts in Kern County by 146 students per year will increase average wages in Kern County by $298 per year. That amounts to $9,800 per year in higher wages for earning a high school diploma compared to lacking one.
• Increasing the number of college enrollees (not graduates, simply new enrollees) in Kern by 923 students per year will increase average wages in Kern County by $130 per year. Sound insignificant? A $130 bump across the board from simply adding 923 students to a workforce of 300,000 is statistically huge, he said.• Increasing the local economic GDP would have only 40 percent the impact that increasing the educational attainment level of 1,100 Kern County residents would have. In other words, education is by far the area’s key economic driver, in part because it creates incentive for high-tech, high innovation firms to come here.
The resurgent Kern County oil industry needs bright, innovative minds. The evolving Kern County agriculture industry needs new ideas. And the one-two punch of those vital economic drivers needs competition and support from information-age industries that are still underrepresented here. Educational achievement checks all of those boxes, and the benefits roll downhill to all Kern residents.
Kudos to the local educators who’ve brought us this far, and kudos to the many Kern County residents who appreciate their mission.
But there’s more work to be done. Much more. So let’s get busy.