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The world is changing all around us, sometimes in ways that are hard to understand. But the chart you see at right is pretty easy to understand and it goes a long way toward explaining, well, lots of things.

We’re going through a national debate — expect more of this — about the high price of college.

Some Democratic candidates talk about wiping away student loan debt; some talk about making college free. Meanwhile, Republican legislators in Virginia (with some help from Democrats) have succeeded in getting state colleges and universities to hold tuition flat in exchange for higher funding, while Republicans in Tennessee really have made community college free (well, sort of; there are details involved).

The policy rationale behind all these moves, whether free college or just something less expensive, is that the modern economy demands more people go to college so we better figure out a way to get them there — and if the prospect of debt is scaring some people away, that’s not good for society. There’s also the related problem of debt-burdened students who can’t afford to buy houses and cars or start families, which also slows economic growth.

All this has prompted something of a pushback by people who point out that not everyone needs to go to a four-year-college, that there are plenty of good jobs available that don’t require a college degree. In fact, there’s a great demand for such people in certain fields — welding is usually the favorite one cited. So which is it: Does the economy really demand that more people go to college, or is it demanding more people who aren’t college graduates? The answer is yes — to both. How can this be?

The world is full of paradoxes, and this is one of them. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists five levels of education: Less than a high school diploma; high school graduates who didn’t go to college; those with some college or an associate’s degree; those with a four-year degree; and those with an advanced degree.

Between 1992 and 2016, three of those categories saw their share of the labor force increase, while two decreased. The two that fell were those with a high school diploma or less; the three that increased were those that involved at least some college education.

That’s how the paradox arises: Many of the jobs in what customarily are called “the trades” now require some sort of industry-recognized credentials that are issued through community colleges. Therefore, the economy both demands more people to earn a four-year-degree (or more), but it also demands more people with something between a high school diploma and a college degree. What the economy needs fewer of are workers with only a high school diploma (or less). This is where the push to make at least community college free comes from. We currently provide a free K-12 education because that’s what was once considered sufficient for most people — but now the economy has changed and it really demands what might be called a K-14 education. We have a 21st economy but only 20th century policies (some might even say 19th century policies.)

This has been said before but it needs to be said again — and again and again. We’re living through a hinge point in history, the transition from the industrial age to the information age, and it’s happening in real time.

n In 1992, the biggest share of the workforce — 36% — had only a high school diploma. Today, the biggest share of the workforce — 27% — has a four-year degree.

n Here’s another way to look at things: In 1992, 48% of the workforce had a high school degree or less. By 2016, only 34% had a high school degree or less. Meanwhile the share with at least some college has risen from 52% to 66%.

On the one hand, these are encouraging numbers; they show how the American labor force is responding to the forces reshaping it. On the other hand, it’s clear that some people and places aren’t responding fast enough — and maybe can’t. If you’re graduating from high school, the options are pretty straightforward — you need to get at least some additional education because that’s what the economy now demands. But if you’re an adult, especially, an older adult with only a high school diploma, you’re increasingly out of luck. No wonder there’s such appeal in the slogan “make America great again” — except that’s not happening. The economy of the 1950s isn’t coming back. Instead, we need to be figuring out how to prepare for the economy of the 2050s. That means a lot of older adults need to go back to community college for additional training — and a lot more kids need to be moving onto to some kind of post-high school education. Where are the policies to make those two things happen? There are some out there: Many community colleges in western Virginia have scholarship programs — partially funded by local governments, partially funded by private donors — to try to close the funding gap for many students. The question we ought to be asking is whether that’s enough.

The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia recently posted an excellent discussion of these trends on its statchatva.org site under the ominous, but accurate, headline: “A Greater Number of Jobs Require More Education, Leaving Middle-Skill Workers with Fewer Opportunities.”

The changing nature of the economy is particular challenge for rural Virginia, where educational levels run well behind what the new economy requires. Former Gov. Gerald Baliles called attention to these in an address to educators last year. If rural Virginia were a separate state, he said, “it would be tied for dead last with Mississippi and West Virginia for educational attainment levels — dead last for citizens with high school diplomas; dead last for citizens with college degrees.” Meanwhile, the rest of Virginia would rank second in the country. Politicians can’t really change the arc of the economy. For better or for worse, the free market is bigger and more powerful than any president. Politicians can, though, respond to what happening to better prepare society for the changes the economy is going through. Baliles called for a “Marshall Plan” to raise educational levels in rural Virginia. This is something the governor and General Assembly could do; however, they’re not the only ones. As we’ve seen through those community college scholarship programs, local governments can play a role, too. This fall, voters will elect both houses of the state legislators — and many county supervisors. Voters might want to ask them if they think Baliles was right or wrong, and then vote accordingly.

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