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Forum editorial: Consultant confirms the obvious

It apparently took a consultant to tell North Dakotans what they already knew: A four-year college degree earned at a North Dakota university does not pay off in the North Dakota job market.

It apparently took a consultant to tell North Dakotans what they already knew: A four-year college degree earned at a North Dakota university does not pay off in the North Dakota job market.

No kidding.

Anyone who's been paying attention for the last decade knows the exodus of educated young adults from North Dakota has been spurred by the lure of good-paying jobs in other states. North Dakota's excellent secondary school and university systems produce well-educated men and women who come with a bonus: a work ethic. A young, educated North Dakotan is a hot property on the job market -- everywhere, it seems, but in North Dakota.

The consultant who reported findings to the Higher Education Roundtable stressed that a four-year degree is not as valuable in North Dakota as it is in other states. It means something like $10,600 more a year in salary than a high school diploma. Given the costs of a four-year college degree, graduates make the simple calculation that they can make more money out of state in order to pay off their college loans. They might not want to leave their home state, but the economics of their situations compels them to leave.

So it's job issue, as it always has been. Jobs are available, but in most places pay levels don't measure up to competition in other states. And there are not enough good-paying jobs to accommodate well-educated graduates.

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Not enough jobs probably is the major problem. There are good jobs that pay well. There are challenging jobs in engineering, business, banking, media, medicine, education, research, agri-businesses and manufacturing, to name a few sectors. But not enough, even in Fargo, the state's largest job market with most of the state's good-paying jobs.

We're not sure if the consultant's report will be used to make the phony case that North Dakota should not be spending so much to educate young people who then leave. That's parochial nonsense. Education is supposed to benefit the individual -- to equip him or her with the skills to earn a living and be a productive informed citizen, which in turn is good for a strong democracy. It should not matter where a North Dakotan chooses to achieve those goals.

What does matter, however, is providing more opportunities for North Dakotans to achieve those goals in their state, if they want to. Several initiatives are under way to change the state's mindset about jobs and wages. It's no small task, given the inertia of a risk-averse history and biennial legislative neglect. But the signs are better than they have ever been: technology parks; university involvement with the private job-producing sector; sensible tax and investment incentives; development partnerships that thus far have been able to avoid partisan pitfalls.

If it all works, the perennial hand-wringing about the exodus of North Dakota's young people will end. If it doesn't work, the state will continue to be a shrinking source of hard-working, highly educated young people.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper's Editorial Board

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