A recent Bangor Daily News headline was eye catching for sure. “A Maine Maritime Academy degree is more valuable than one from Harvard, study finds,” it said.
There is no doubt that an education at MMA is a good investment. Its students typically get jobs soon after they graduate, and many of those jobs pay well. But, MMA is a specialized school that appeals to a small percentage of high school graduates.
There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but comparing a maritime academy education with an education from a comprehensive university doesn’t tell the whole story.
The story under the headline explained that the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce had assembled a database to track the return on investment at thousands of post-secondary schools across the country.
The aim of the database — to help students gauge whether attending a particular institution is a good investment — is well intentioned. The problem is that trying to compare very disparate schools — such as maritime academies and liberal arts colleges — leads to some nearly meaningless conclusions.
The more important message for Maine high school students, and adults seeking higher education credentials, is that post-secondary education is essential in today’s workplace. That doesn’t mean that every Mainer should go to a four-year college, although more should. Technical education, which can range from an apprenticeship, to a certificate program, to a two-year or four-year degree is also valuable and needed.
“The message is that we need it all,” Ed Cervone, the executive director of the Center for Innovation in Education at Thomas College, told the Bangor Daily News.
University of Maine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy echoed this message. “We need people to be lifelong learners,” she told the BDN. To accommodate this, educational institutions, like UMaine, need to have more fluid boundaries and closer relationships with other educational institutions and businesses. Students are increasingly likely to move between community colleges and university campuses, and industry will rely more on colleges and universities to provide customized professional education.
The goal, Ferrini-Mundy said, it for higher education “to suit a student’s own opportunity for purposeful work.”
There is lots of data to show that education beyond high school increases lifetime earnings and employment prospects. Nearly all of the jobs created in American in the past decade have gone to people with college degrees or other post-secondary credentials, according to a study also done by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
Yet, less than half of Maine adults have a degree or technical certificate, according to Maine Spark, a fairly new coalition of education and business leaders working to improve the quality of the state’s workforce. Their goal is to have 60 percent of Maine workers holding “a credential of value” by 2025.
“Here in Maine, we need 158,000 more workers credentialed and educated by 2025 to seize the excellent job opportunities available in the coming years. These positions must be filled to insure a strong economy for all,” the group wrote on its website.
This effort is one of many to close Maine’s long-discussed workforce gap. There are two distinct aspects of this gap. The first is that Maine doesn’t have enough working-age adults to fill all the jobs that already exist in the state, let alone ones that the state hopes to attract to grow our economy. In addition, too few workers have the skills that employers are seeking as an increasing number of jobs require critical thinking and technical skills.
“In this economy, if you have a mindset that you’ll need to continue your education, you’ll be ready for a changing workforce,” said Cervone, a founder of Maine Spark.
So, by all means, Maine students should go to MMA or Harvard or any of the state’s liberal arts colleges, universities, community colleges, career and educational centers or training centers. What is most important is that they continue their education at an institution that best fits their needs and goals, both for the short-term and for the many decades of their working lives.