Late spring is a season for celebrations in the greater Wenatchee area. One of the biggest, collectively, are high school graduation ceremonies. Students and families are justifiably happy and proud to receive that sheepskin.
I nonetheless need to state the obvious: learning doesn’t stop here. It can take the form of on-the-job training or attending a two- or four-year institution. Employers now demand higher skill levels of their workforce than a generation ago. Importantly, from a student perspective, one can expect considerably higher lifetime earnings with a degree beyond high school.
What is the current status of the adult (18+) population in the two counties who are pursuing some form of higher ed? A look at the annual estimates from the U.S. Census for the past dozen years makes it quickly apparent that there hasn’t been too much college-going among the adult population.
And at 5%, that share hasn’t budged over the interval. Compared to both the U.S. and Washington state averages, college-going shares of the population are several percentage points lower.
Why might that be the case? Obviously, finances play a role. Increasingly, public school students come from low-income families, as the dramatic rise in the number of children qualifying for free and reduced-priced lunch demonstrates.
Another reason, linked to the rising share of this demographic, is expectations. For many families, both parents and students just can’t envision life as a college student and a working professional.
Linked to expectations is yet another likely reason: The job prospects for those young people whose horizon stops at the counties’ borders. Forty-five percent of the share of all workers in the five largest employing sectors in the two counties are in industries that, by and large, don’t require a degree beyond high school.
But the latest snapshot of the labor market in the two counties shows a professional future for young people, if they want to pursue healthcare.
The data come from a report by the state Employment Security Department and are based on postings compiled by a service, Health Wanted OnLine. In April, 48% of the postings for Chelan County were in healthcare. Nurses and nursing assistants topped the list.
In Douglas County, employer demand for April wasn’t nearly as healthcare-focused, with only 15% of the postings in the sector.
The number of postings that Douglas, however, was about a fifth of the size of the total in Chelan County. In most but not all cases, the healthcare occupations demanded require some form of post-high school education. Given the sector’s push to “up-credential,” certificates and degrees will matter all the more in the future.
How have specifically area high school seniors responded to both the expectation of lifetime earning opportunities and the local job market? An insightful data set compiled from another state agency, the Education Research and Data Center (ERDC) helps us answer that question. Based on a variety of sources, it tracks the presence of high school grads one year after their diploma. The data are not (yet) an indicator on the Trends site.
Here’s what ERDC reported on the two largest districts in the two counties — Wenatchee and Eastmont.
For the cohort who graduated in 2016, the most recently available year, 28% of Wenatchee graduating seniors immediately went on to a four year, public or private, in- or out-of-state institution. Forty percent immediately went on to a two-year school.
For Eastmont, the numbers were a little lower: 22% and 34%, respectively. For both districts, little has changed in college-going behavior over the past decade. Compared to state averages, the two districts show much lower attendance at four-year schools, but much higher attendance at two-year schools.
This look at graduating seniors raises many questions, including one of a “fit” with the local labor market. It is heartening that, overall for the two districts, college-going seems close to state averages. The emphasis on a two-year degree is, of course, unique to the two.
It may reflect the needs of the local economy. It undoubtedly reflects the presence of a large community college in Wenatchee.
And it may reflect a desire by the young people in the two counties to pursue higher education but for several reasons, not reaching their goal.
Patrick Jones is executive director of the Institute for Public Policy and Economic Analysis at Eastern Washington University.