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Tampa Bay makes gains in education levels, but where are the benefits?

Danielle Auguste, 31, of Tampa isn’t convinced a master’s degree is in her best interest.
Published Jan. 4, 2016

The Great Recession transformed Tampa Bay, and in most cases, not for the better.

Incomes stagnated. Home values dropped. Rents went up.

But one category improved: Tampa Bay's education levels.

According to five-year estimates released last month by the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of adults holding bachelor's degrees rose 10.4 percent in 2010-14 from the previous five years. Those in Tampa Bay with graduate or professional degrees jumped 17.3 percent.

While the surge in degrees among Tampa Bay adults is unquestionably good news for making the region competitive in luring jobs, it has brought mixed results for people who hold the degrees. As student debt mounts and wages remain flat, many find themselves questioning the notion that earning higher degrees is a sure-fire ticket to success.

"We find that even people or households with degrees aren't better off because wages have been treading water," said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. In a soft job market, Baker said, employers can be more demanding and assume that the workers will bear the costs to train themselves.

"(Employees) basically can't expect job security," Baker said.

Danielle Auguste got the memo.

The 31-year-old mother of two daughters lost her $15-an-hour job as a medical billings supervisor in November because she wasn't certified in coding.

Auguste quickly found a non-supervisor job as a billings specialist for a durable medical equipment company in Largo just in time for the holidays.

But her commute from her Tampa apartment can take an hour. And she's still paid $15 an hour — far below what she hoped for when she graduated from the University of South Florida in 2010 with a degree in behavioral health care.

"Do you go back to school and get a master's?" Auguste said. "Or do you just go back to one of these trade schools and get certified and get licensed and get a job?"

After amassing more than $92,000 in loan debt during her time at USF, more schooling is hardly appealing for Auguste.

Employers used to provide on-the-job training, and while many still do, some employers are becoming leery about spending time and money on further education and training.

"They're investing in a worker and (that worker is) willing to go down the street for not that much more money," said Mike Meidel, director of Pinellas County Economic Development.

Tony Carvajal, executive vice president of the Florida Chamber Foundation, said the competition is tough because the workforce has expanded from the national to the global level.

"Almost every job in some way has the ability to be worked from almost anywhere in the world," he said. "It also requires that that person be better skilled, better trained, constantly improving their abilities. The employee who is well trained wins."

Typically, more people go back to school to earn higher degrees during slower economic times. Yet, when the recession hit in 2008, adult and technical education classes offered by Pinellas County schools saw a slight bump in enrollment before suffering a steep decline, said Mark Hunt, who oversees the program.

Enrollment peaked at 22,000 in 2009-10. By 2012-13, enrollment fell to 10,700. This year's enrollment is back up to 22,000.

"Unfortunately, the economy was so bad that across the whole spectrum there wasn't a whole lot of job creation," Hunt said. "It's picking back up because people have an idea of where the jobs are."

Hunt said the average age of a technical college student is 29 and many already have some type of degree.

"They're coming back to school because the degree path that they chose doesn't afford them the kind of living that they want," Hunt said.

Higher education has become a means of survival, however costly it may be.

Average student debt from public and private four-year schools in Florida was $24,947, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. Slightly more than half of adults have student debt.

"It's a pretty dismal picture," said Baker, the economist from Washington. "You have a lot of people who are disaffected. They thought they were doing the right thing and all they end up with is debt."

Rich Templin, the legislative and political director for Florida AFL-CIO, said Florida simply isn't creating the types of jobs that pay back the cost of increased education.

"The job-creation policies in Florida, really for 20 years, have been geared more toward lower-wage jobs in the service sector and in the health care services sector," he said.

While an advanced degree may not always equate to a pay raise, society benefits from educated individuals, said Troy Miller, associate director for research and policy at the Florida College Access Network, which is housed at USF. The network aims to increase degree attainment to 60 percent by 2025, when economists predict that the majority of the workforce will require postsecondary education.

If so, Tampa Bay has a long way to go. In 2010-14, 32.9 percent of adults held a post-graduate degree, up from 31.6 during 2005-09. That's far below the national average, which rose from 34.9 percent to 37.2 percent.

Miller enumerated the benefits of having a higher level of education: Those with degrees are more likely to have a job, live a healthier lifestyle and be satisfied in their jobs.

That message has caught on for most Americans. In 2010-14, 58.4 percent of adults across the nation had at least some form of education after graduating from high school, up from 55.2 percent during 2005-09. Tampa Bay saw a similar uptick, from 52.6 percent to 55.4 percent.

Although Tampa Bay lags the national average in people getting college and advanced degrees, the past five years have made it more competitive because there are 61,000 more people in the region with a bachelor's degree or higher.

Miller noted that areas with higher concentrations of college-educated people attract more college-educated workers.

Such clusters of talent bring employers — and better jobs, said Rick Homans, CEO and president of the Tampa Bay Partnership.

The local workforce two decades ago was widely regarded as fit for only low-cost labor and call centers, Homans said. Now, that same workforce has become more sophisticated, drawing the likes of Depository Trust and Citigroup.

"You can't accomplish that level of success without a highly educated workforce," Homans said.

Times computer-assisted reporting specialist Connie Humburg and senior researchers John Martin and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Colleen Wright at cwright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

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