Don’t be too surprised if you see hundreds of children running through your neighborhood and climbing around the playground this summer — all with matching T-shirts announcing their admission to the Class of 2025.
Almost 900 kindergartners in Lee County Schools were welcomed to first grade this spring with free shirts provided by 10 local businesses and nonprofit groups. The gift was part of Project PK-14, an ongoing effort led by the United Way of Lee County to enhance local education and encourage students to remain in school through at least two years of college.
Why is a college education so important?
Well, where do you begin?
Decades ago, the high school diploma was the rite of passage, a credential that opened the door to plenty of good, entry-level jobs and a successful career. But those days are long gone. All you have to do is look at all of the unskilled jobs being eliminated by technology and shipped overseas to developing countries to realize how vastly different our world is today.
Don’t be fooled: There are still plenty of good jobs out there, but nearly all of them require technical skills and a much higher level of education than ever before.
Add to that the rising proportion of Americans earning college degrees and what high school graduates face is much greater competition for the fewer jobs they can perform.
And then there’s that huge — and growing — difference between what high school and college graduates earn.
Back in the late ’70s, adults with bachelor’s degrees earned 55 percent more than high school graduates. That was a big difference; but, now, they earn almost 86 percent more.
Here are the actual numbers. The U.S. Department of Labor Statistics says the median annual wage for high school graduates in 2010 was $34,180. That may sound like a lot of money to young people, but it’s really not. Especially when you learn that the average annual wage for people with an associate degree was $61,590, approaching double what high school graduates earn.
Over a 40-year career, that means people with associate degrees will earn $1.1 million more than their counterparts with only a high school diploma.
As you might imagine, annual income grows with even more education. Workers with a bachelor’s degree average $63,430 per year and those earning a doctoral or professional degree average $87,500 per year.
Those are a lot of numbers, but the point is that college education is no luxury; it’s absolutely essential for success. That’s why it’s so important to help young people stay in school through at least two years of college — and why Project PK-14 is so important for our community.
Of course, Project PK-14 does more than just provide T-shirts.
It was created three years ago with four broad goals in mind: increasing parental involvement in the schools, promoting safer schools, supporting effective teaching activities in the classroom and helping students develop plans for their education and life beyond school.
A number of valuable projects have been organized since then and VolunteerLee.com was created to help bring volunteers into the schools — and nonprofits all over the area. Now, anyone who wants to volunteer and any group needing help can get connected online. It’s free and has been a perfect way to provide information about volunteer opportunities and get people involved.
Even more is on the way. Work continues on a wide range of projects, including one that could eventually guarantee access to two years of technical or college transfer courses at Central Carolina Community College for every Lee County high school graduate, regardless of their income. That’s a huge undertaking and it’s not here quite yet, but you can see how Project PK-14 could transform our community.
Whether it’s T-shirts you may see this summer or something even bigger to come, the outreach is designed to elevate our entire community. And, most of all, to help our young neighbors enjoy a better, more successful future.
Jan Hayes is executive director of the United Way of Lee County.