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Choice: College Or Prison?

October 9, 2011
Mike Myer , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

Most West Virginians probably are aware of the financial arguments in favor of going to college. Graduates get better jobs, obtain them more quickly and earn much more than those who stop at high school or even before that.

But there's an even more powerful argument for not dropping out of high school but staying in, then attending college. Brace yourself for this one:

High school dropouts are 63 times more likely to find themselves on the wrong side of the law than are college graduates. That is not a typographical error and I did not make it up.

Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies looked at the issue in 2009. Researchers looked at how many prison inmates were high school dropouts. They found that at any given time, one of every 10 high school dropouts was in a criminal justice institution. High school graduates were only one-third as likely to be in jails or prisons. Again on any given day, only about one in 500 jail or prison inmates were college graduates (the 63 times figure used a different statistical analysis method).

Wow. Of course, the old chicken-or-the-egg question comes into play: Those with criminal tendencies to start with probably are more likely to drop out of school.

But all other things being equal, common sense also dictates a degree is some insurance against a rap sheet. Obviously, folks with good jobs are less likely to turn to crime (and, probably, not going to get caught as easily, to be frank).

Several days ago, I attended a forum at West Liberty University, held by the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission. The subject was getting more Mountain State residents to and through higher education.

Just 17 percent of West Virginia adults have bachelors' degrees or better. The national average is 27 percent. We are one of the worst-educated states in the nation.

And we have a problem with prison overcrowding.

Getting more of our young - and older, for that matter - residents to college clearly is important. It'll take a massive effort by higher education, public schools - and parents. Apparently, mom and dad may have a choice: Check in with junior on campus - or on visiting day at the local lockup.

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