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POFFENBERGER: County turns eye toward college and career readiness

October 16, 2012|By BRIEN POFFENBERGER

After a generation of newfound interest — and excellence — in K-12 education, Washington County has begun to turn its attention to the importance of career and college readiness.  And whether the focus is high school graduation, technical certification or a college degree, the job market has never been more insistent that students broaden their education beyond basic skills.

A diploma is a differentiator and creator of opportunities, an asset and part of a personal brand. It serves as academic shorthand, promising an employer the skills and the analytical thinking that comes from the hard work required to earn it.  That promise has a value in the marketplace, with a direct correlation between educational attainment and success. The higher the degree, the greater the potential rewards.

By virtually any measure, more education means the chance for a higher income, more fulfillment and greater happiness.  Jobs once open to anyone with proven skills now require high school graduation. Even then, a high school diploma can command only enough in the marketplace for the most Spartan of lifestyles, with few material comforts and limited opportunities to advance. And the reverse is true, too. 

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Education is part of the path to nearly any goal, making it a universal multiplier of opportunity. 

As compelling as the dollar signs can be, the advantages of further education go beyond a simple cost-benefit analysis.  Indeed, such a transactional argument offers a false choice, suggesting that education is but one option among many. It also suggests that other options may offer a greater payoff. 

That is almost never true. In fact, more education creates opportunities, both professional and personal.

The non-financial data tell the same story. Life expectancy, marriage statistics and overall well-being all improve with every year of formal education. In short, more education offers a better life — no matter who you are, no matter what you’re doing.

That same logic extends to the entire community.  Washington County is poised to provide the next generation of prosperity in Maryland, but only if we can unlock the potential in our work force. Our community is known throughout Maryland for its work ethic and manufacturing know-how. Now, we must combine that reputation with a level of education that competes in the 21st-century labor market. Where once workers could build successful careers by honing specific skills, today businesses hire problem solvers. Technology will continue to both eliminate jobs that existed just a few years ago and create jobs that we cannot yet imagine. Educators are working to build curricula that match employers’ needs, replacing specific skills with analytical thinking that can transfer from one job to another. 

Community leaders in Washington County have heard the message and are focused on preparing students for both college and career. The school system and community college both have programs for the traditionally college-bound, for students new to the college experience and for those seeking technical or professional certification.

The Greater Hagerstown Committee released an education report card measuring how our community compares to the competition and what we can do to improve. And the WCPS Education Foundation has adopted college preparedness as its top priority.

These and other groups understand that education — and the critical thinking skills it develops — will prove to be the key to success in the 21st century.

Brien Poffenberger is president of the Hagerstown/Washington County Chamber of Commerce.

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