By Guest Columnist MIKE GERBER, founder and president of Cross Channel Initiatives

If this were the game show Jeopardy, the answer would be: “two and a half times.”

The question: “How much more in state taxpayer money does Georgia spend annually to keep someone incarcerated than it does to send a student to a public four-year university?”

That’s right. In fiscal year 2011, the average taxpayer-funded cost per inmate in a state prison was $16,250. That compared to $6,300 in state funding per full-time equivalent student at a University System of Georgia institution.

What’s more, fiscal year 2011 spending per prisoner went up on average of nearly $3,000 from the previous year while spending per college student dropped nearly $950. That’s a 23 percent increase for prisoners and a 13 percent decline for students.

And while college doesn’t guarantee someone will never go to prison, the odds are on the side of the educated person. In December 2012, 88.5 percent of state prisoners never went past high school (55 percent never even received a diploma). That compared to 9.8 percent who attended at least some college and only 1.7 percent who earned a degree.

Mike Gerber
Mike Gerber

The point of this is that education needs to be seen as an investment that yields clear and measureable returns. Make the investment, and society and individual citizens will benefit. Don’t make the investment — and the reverse is true.

Here’s another Jeopardy answer: “15 percen t, 10 percent and 5 percent.”

The question: “What were the unemployment rates of Georgia residents by education level during the recession?”

In 2010, unemployment was 15 percent for Georgians between the ages of 25 and 64 who never finished high school, 10 percent for those who graduated high school but never went to college, and only 5 percent for those with a bachelor’s degree (3 percent for those with advanced degrees). Unfortunately, the same pattern holds true today.

Stated directly, in a bad economy the biggest advantage a person can have in finding a job is a college education.

Need more proof? Full-time jobs in Georgia dropped by 149,000 from pre-recession (2005-2007) to recession (2008-2010) for those who never finished high school or stopped at a high school diploma. This compared to a 70,400 full-time job increase for those who had at least some college or a degree.

Jobs correlate to income. Consistently over the years, average personal incomes of Georgians with a bachelor’s degree have been double the average incomes of high school graduates. And salaries across a range of occupations from lab techs to auto mechanics to retail salespersons are consistently higher if a person finished college.

With the return on investment of education well established, some might now expect a call for greater state funding of higher ed or a plea that families do whatever it takes to send their kids to college. But neither of these directions seem realistic given today’s economic realities.

Circumstances today instead point to the need for higher education to embrace the wave of change that is already sweeping over it; to accelerate the pace with which it adopts new methods for delivering educational content; and to find innovative ways to more efficiently use the investments that individuals, families and society already make.

Thankfully, there are positive signs this is happening in Georgia.

Gov. Nathan Deal has joined the national effort known as Complete College, setting the goal that at least 60 percent of Georgia adults have some type of formal post-secondary certificate or degree by 2020 (the state is now at 42 percent).

University System and Technical College System campuses have developed plans addressing this goal, and private institutions are participating as well. Key to this campaign will be helping adults who have at least some college but no degree, find a path to finishing the coursework they need.

In addition, under the leadership of Chancellors Hank Huckaby and Ron Jackson, both systems are working together to more clearly define and align the roles each play.

For instance, both are collaborating to eliminate road blocks that in the past have hampered students from keeping their credit hours when moving from a technical college to a university. Agreements between individual institutions in each sector to help students complete college are also multiplying.

Georgia Tech and Emory University continue the historic evolution of their two-decade partnership in research and education, and the Georgia Research Alliance continues to facilitate cooperation among its members and is considering ways of involving other institutions.

Georgia Tech and Emory are also among the global academic leaders experimenting with content delivery through the rapidly exploding Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) movement. Georgia State is exploring how to assess and assign credit to its students who complete MOOC courses offered by other institutions.

Critically important, the business community is increasing its engagement through the new higher ed-business initiatives of the Metro Atlanta Chamber as well as the Georgia Chamber of Commerce’s ongoing support for a variety of programs that help citizens transition from school to college to career.

Certainly, much remains to be done to achieve a more educated Georgia in which the prosperity and well being of all citizens is improved.

But progress is being made in this direction thanks to state leaders and to innovative efforts by higher education to make smarter investments with available resources and to partner where possible. The pay-off from these efforts will accrue to each of us who call Georgia our home.

Note to readers: Before launching Cross Channel Initiatives, Gerber served for 14 years as president of the Atlanta Regional Council for Higher Education.

Click here for more information on how education benefits Georgians. 

Click here for more information on Georgia’s Department of Corrections spending data and for prisoner information.

Also, click here for University System of Georgia spending data.

Join the Conversation


  1. I’m not sure what percent of jobs in America require post secondary education. BLS estimated to be 32% based on education required and Georgetown estimated 60% based on attainment level. I read another article saying that occupation projection in Milwaukee through 2020, 70% of job openings will require high school or less. If America is more developed country than canada, how come most jobs in canada will require post secondary education and why most jobs in US require high school or less?

  2. Good column. While it would seem that there’s conflicting data on just how important it is to extend education beyond high school, the simple logic that “more education is better” is hard to refute. The report referenced in the column illustrates this in multiple ways.

    1. DO you know what percent of jobs i US require post secondary education? If US is more developed country how come BLS estimated only 32% of jobs require post high school education whereas Canada is less developed country only 60% ofjobs in that country need post high school education?

  3. Post secondary education is not simply matter of getting a degree to get a job – there is much more to college than coursework in terms of benefits to the person and society. But neither is money the only reason everyone doesn’t go to college – although it can be a major hurdle. Our education system fails to inspire. Many people drop out of the system because they do not see how it helps them. The system does not help ‘under-performing’ students find what their gifts are. People who understand their gifts – instead of simply being shown their shortcomings – strive to use them and will succeed. This is a great article because it points out our vested interest in transforming the educational system.

  4. Mr. Gerber, what about all those federal government employees, from the president, congress, on down to VA executives in Phoenix who make of the order of $300K per year, the 4 star generals who dismally failed us on 9/11, and more, who not only have higher education degrees, many above the bachelor level, but who are unindicted liars and cheaters who operate outside of any law enforcement on them?  Not only are they not in jail, they run the country! Does not this information clearly contradict your thesis and assumptions?   Yes a college education may provide more income sttistically, but does it really improve our society when these folks lie and cheat on a daily or hourly basis?  Many examples could be provided but are prevented by word limitations.
    Winfield J. Abbe, Ph.D., Physics
    “The jails are full of petty thieves but the grand thieves are running the country”.    Howard Zinn, Ph.D.

  5. Mr. Gerber, let me give you an example with the failed war on cancer. About $105 billion and more has been squandered on this failed war for nearly 50 years, yet about one person every minute dies either from cancer, treatment or both, usually treatment but falsely reported as from cancer.   All approved treatments are life threatening; so , when a cancer patient dies they could have died either from cancer, treatment or both.  But a true autopsy, proving the true cause of death is never performed, thankfully for the lucky medical doctors making so much money from this greatest medical scam of our time.  They therefore will not be prosecuted for fraud, medical quackery, scientific misconduct and crimes against humanity as they and the cancer generals should be and who all should be sitting in those jail cells you mentioned above.
    Otto Warburg, M.D., Ph.D. (1883-1970) proved the prime cause of cancer decades ago based on experiments and facts;
    oxygen deficiency to living cells over a long period of time or respiratory impairment or the wrong energy supply.   The criminal cancer generals have been criminally ignoring and disregarding this information for decades.   They are the ones with those higher education degrees who should be sitting in the jail cells you mentioned above.
    Similar statements could be made on the sixty plus year stonewall of high dose Vitamin C.

  6. Mr. Gerber, I recently gave a talk to a conference on academic freedom at the University of Illinois. I proved, with documentary facts, that about 40 years ago, two deans and three department heads at the University of Georgia, all with Ph.D. degrees, lied for about 4 years to the entire tenured faculty of the physics department about recommendations of an outside advisory committee’s recommendations for promotion.  You are on the Southern Association of Colleges and Universities which accredits the University of Georgia.   Do you think they presented these sordid facts to the investigating committee then?   Do you believe in the tooth fairy?  Of course they did not.   This information was a carefully guarded secret along with the three secret letters some of them wrote against another faculty member who was turned down for promotion.   One of those deans Stephens, from Emory, was declared, by the chairman of the investigating committee of this incident, to be guilty of racial discrimination, and this happened about 1977 long after the Civil Rights Law was passed in 1963, and the individual was not black but Asian ancestory!

  7. Mr. Gerber:  Here are some of my qualifications: A.B., Physics, UC Berkeley, 1961, M.S., Physics, California State University at Los Angeles, 1962 under Earl Jacobs, Ph.D., Ph.D., Physics, UC Riverside, 1966 under Peter Kaus, Ph.D., Institute of Science and Techology Fellow, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor under Marc Ross, Ph.D., former Assistant-Associate Professor of Physics University of Georgia, Athens, 1966-1978, voluntarily resigned 1978 from a position of lifetime tenure, awards for outstanding achievement in mathematics, physics and chemistry, born Cleveland, Ohio, 1939,  raised at Sierra Madre, California, Citizen of Georgia since 1966.

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