Megan Pike and Jennifer Peyeser are reminded every day to finish college by people wishing they had done things differently.
The Augusta State University students work part time at the Kroger in Evans for pocket money, but have learned the job means much more to some coworkers. They see the 60-year-old bagger who hasn’t gotten a raise in a decade. They see the single mother raising two children on $7.25 an hour.
“You see these people supporting a family on a small paycheck and they’re still struggling,” said Peyeser, 20, a cashier at Kroger. “They always tell us ‘Finish college and get an education because I wish that I had.’”
According to the latest U.S. Census data, having a college degree is less the norm in Richmond County compared to the nation. Only 21.6 percent of Richmond County residents 25 and older have at least a bachelor’s degree. That’s lower than the state average of 27.3 percent, which itself is lower than the national average of 30 percent.
Lower educational attainment levels translate into lower income, and, according to experts, are a barometer on a community’s economic health.
For instance, the average household income in Richmond County is $49,756. In neighboring Columbia County, where 33.6 percent of its residents over 25 have college degrees, the average household income is $81,553, according to the latest Census data.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median weekly earning for someone with a bachelor’s degree is $1,038 and $626 for high school graduates.
Additionally, those who hold college degrees stay out of the unemployment line more. In 2010, the unemployment rate for people holding just a high school diploma was 10.3 percent, compared to 5.4 percent for those with a bachelor’s degree.
University of Georgia demographer Douglas C. Bachtel said cities with more educated people also struggle less with social issues like crime, teen pregnancy and health problems.
“It all kind of goes together, which is pretty sad in a way,” he said. “Education is like a warm, fuzzy blanket that’s wrapped around you that informs you about bad decisions; the dietary stuff, the child abuse, the spouse abuse, the crime and all the social pathologies.”
Educational attainment also plays a role in community enrichment, Bachtel said. Communities with higher education often have more people willing to do community service projects and lead change to better the area.
“When you have low education levels, those folks are concerned about day to day living,” Bachtel said. “As a result, they don’t have the time or inclination to join those groups...There’s three important things for community and economic development: leadership, leadership, leadership.”
The decade-long increase in educational attainment nationwide, which Richmond County trails, comes as the U.S. continues a conversation about the value of higher education. In 2010, President Obama announced his goal to raise the college graduation rate to 60 percent by 2020.
The urgency comes as the U.S. has fallen from first to 12th in the world among countries with people holding at least an associate degree. But the country, especially Georgia, is also seeing a push for more skill-based workers in jobs that don’t require a four-year degree.
Tricia Pridemore, the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Work Force Development, said 16,500 trade jobs will become available in 2012 and 82,000 by 2016. The increase is spurred by more jobs opening from increased construction and a generation of long-time carpenters and builders who are dying out.
“We desperately need electricians, welders, pipe fitters, carpenters...” Pridemore said. “For the last two generations, we’ve told our kids in America that they have to go to a four-year college. Four year college is great...but it’s not for everybody.”
Although Richmond County has a lower educational attainment compared to the country, the statistic has not discouraged industry from coming to the area, according to Walter Sprouse, Jr., the executive director of Augusta Economic Development Authority of Richmond County.
He said businesses often choose locations based on the region and not just the central city. In 2011, the metro area saw $401 million of new industry – seven times what occurred in 2010.
“The main thing that companies are looking for is a workforce,” Sprouse said. “A bachelor’s degree does not necessarily guarantee you a job, nor does a technical degree. But in this day and age...the companies that we’re dealing with that come here, the first people they want to talk to are at Augusta Technical College.”
The focus on skilled laborers has grown with the construction of the Richmond County Technical Career Magnet School on Augusta Tech’s campus, which will offer courses like collision repair and culinary arts when it opens in August.
Nanette Barnes, the career, technical and agricultural education director for Richmond County schools, said students are realizing there are options besides a four-year degree.
“Sometime people don’t understand skilled labor does bring in money,” she said. “I’m not knocking college... but I think the mindset is changing. That’s a selling point for our young people now. They want something quick and right now to make money, and I don’t blame them.”