by Brian M. Hughes

Improving the educational attainment of our residents may be the single most important thing we can do for the future of Mercer County. Strengthening education at all levels is important, but it is increasingly urgent for us to focus on improving results at the post-secondary level. We need to encourage more residents to earn college degrees and other high quality credentials. If we are successful at that, we are very likely to improve the lives of the graduates and their families, as well as strengthen the competitiveness of our region.

Human capital is increasingly a key determinant of prosperity and opportunity. Researchers have predicted that by 2020, nearly two-thirds of all jobs in our country will require some form of post-secondary education, including most of the highest paying jobs in the fastest-growing fields. Currently only about 40 percent of our residents have an associates or baccalaureate degree. We need to increase this number because education drives both economic vitality and improvements to our quality of life.

That’s why I have formed the Mercer County Partnership for Educational Attainment. Led by Jianping Wang, the president of Mercer County Community College, this will be a collaborative public-private partnership that includes leaders from higher education, business, labor, foundations, and faith-based and community groups. By bringing together leaders from higher education, business, labor, and the community, we can develop effective strategies to improve educational outcomes all across our County — for traditional age students as well as adults.

The commission will be charged with developing and implementing a comprehensive plan to increase educational attainment levels in Mercer County. I have set a short-term goal to increase college completion rates by 1 percent — or 2,500 residents more than would otherwise have graduated — over the next five years. To get there we will need to find ways to improve access and affordability, increase graduation rates, encourage adults to return to school and increase access to certification, apprenticeship and workforce training programs.

If our region is going to compete successfully for those new jobs, we will need to have a better qualified workforce and continue to improve our attainment rate. Remarkably, almost 40,000 Mercer County residents over the age of 25 have some college credits, but no degree. Nearly 10,000 Trenton residents are in a similar position.

Not long ago I was in that same category, having started college but not finished. Eventually I realized how important it would be to my family and my public service aspirations to finish my degree. I was able to do so while working through the flexibility offered by Thomas Edison State University. Doing so changed my life, and I am sure it will open doors for many others.

Education is the single most important factor in determining regional economic success, and improving educational outcomes is highly correlated with improving regional economic well-being. According to the Kresge Foundation, a 1 percent gain in regional college completion rates is associated with a gain of $856 in that region’s per capita income. The entire region benefits from the increased competitiveness that comes from having a better educated workforce. Regions with higher levels of education also enjoy faster rates of income growth.

For individuals, the economic benefit of pursuing education is a powerful incentive. The average gap in lifetime earnings between a high school graduate and someone with a college degree can be as much as $1 million. The non-monetary benefits are also powerful. Those with more education tend to be more engaged citizens, vote more often, volunteer more actively, and make healthier decisions.

Our businesses will also benefit directly from our success in strengthening the workforce. They will be able to hire and promote more Mercer County residents and increase their own productivity. We will be more likely to attract new firms to locate within Mercer County because of our success.

We will all need to work together to achieve these goals. Join me in considering how to enhance your own educational attainment during 2016. Strengthening educational attainment is one of the best ways for all of us to invest in the future of our families, our communities and our region.

Brian M. Hughes is the Mercer County Executive.

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