Businesses should bear some education costs

In his May opinion piece, “An argument against standardization in education,” Ari Klein makes an excellent point that not all students need to take Algebra II. I would like to put his ideas into a larger context.

Let me start by relating my personal experience. I recently retired from a 43-year career as an actuary. Actuaries have a well-deserved reputation as the geeks of the business world. In STEM fields, geekiness is more the norm, but in business we actuaries stand out, or, more accurately, disappear into the woodwork. I studied math in college, and when I applied for my first job, my math degree was a necessary qualification. I also had to pass three-hour exams in both calculus and statistics, and in other subjects more directly related to actuarial work—10 in all in my time—to obtain my professional credentials.

You might think I spent more than 40 years solving equations and calculating probabilities. Nothing could be further from the truth. I used almost nothing I learned in college (in the classroom, that is) during those years. This doesn’t mean there aren’t some actuaries who use higher math in their jobs, but most don’t. In a word, I was overqualified for my job, at least in terms of education, and I suspect the same is true of other kinds of work. So why are actuaries required to have math degrees and take those horrible exams?

Education serves three main purposes: personal growth and fulfillment, employment and civic engagement (not necessarily in that order). As such, there are three beneficiaries: individuals, employers and society at large. Only two of these beneficiaries pay most of the cost of education: individuals, and their families, through the local school taxes and tuition they pay; and society, through state and federal support for education. I am aware that [government] support ultimately comes from taxes, but there is a difference between local support for specific schools and state and federal support, which is more widely dispersed geographically and among social sectors.

From the employer’s perspective, the education of employees is largely a freebie. Employers do pay taxes, some of which goes to support education. Some pay trade school and college tuition for their employees, and some support trade school and college programs related to their work. But this is small potatoes compared to other funding sources.

We constantly hear employers complaining about the lack of necessary skills in the workforce. This is nonsense. As noted above, it is more likely that most of the workforce is overqualified. So why are employers complaining? Simple: when something is free, or almost free, demand always exceeds supply. As long as employers aren’t paying for it, their demand for education for their employees will be insatiable.

One solution is for employers to directly support education at the primary and secondary level, but this is easier said than done. This won’t work at the local level. Employers cannot be expected to support schools whose students could go on to work anywhere. What is needed is some kind of national or statewide education tax on employers, [but] this would be a steep hill to climb, whether in D.C. or Columbus.

If employers had to pay part of the cost of primary and secondary education, they would justifiably want some say in how these programs are run. This is not to say I think schools should be run like a business. Rather, school policies will improve when goalsetting, like funding, is balanced among all the beneficiaries of education. I’m sure that if employers were paying part of the cost, they would agree 100 percent with Mr. Klein that not all students need to take Algebra II. Maybe they would also agree that not all actuaries need to have college degrees in math and sit for those exams.

These ideas don’t point to any practical policies that we can pursue here in the Heights. But they should provide some food for thought when we consider what education policies to support on the federal and state levels.

Eric Klieber

Eric Klieber is a Cleveland Heights resident.

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Volume 9, Issue 7, Posted 9:36 AM, 07.01.2016