In Their Opinion...

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Paul Grasso is the president and CEO of The Development Corporation, Clinton County, New York.

Paul Grasso: Early education key to success

By: Paul Grasso, Just Sayin'

Last week, I attended the Harry E. Salzberg Memorial Award Program at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Business. They honored Earle Congdon, the person responsible for growing Old Dominion Freight Lines into a major carrier. It’s an interesting story, and Earle is a great southern storyteller.

There was a dinner in Earle’s honor after the program. I was fortunate to be seated next to a Syracuse University student who was a graduate of Say Yes to Education. I learned from her that the focus of Say Yes is to increase high-school and college graduation rates of economically disadvantaged inner-city youths. Say Yes pledges full scholarships for students who graduate from the program and enroll in a college or vocational training program.

The program grew out of a commitment that philanthropist George Weiss made to 112 Philadelphia sixth graders in 1987. He told them he would pay their college tuition if they graduated from high school.

Our discussion prompted a broader dialogue among others at our table on why educational attainment is so important. We reached consensus that students who drop out are more likely to commit crimes and end up in prison.

The data supports that consensus. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), 67 percent of inmates in state prisons, 56 percent of inmates in federal prison and 69 percent of inmates in local jails did not graduate from high school.

Personally, I think the number of people with MBAs currently in federal “county club” prisons reduces the federal prison percentage.

In the end, we agreed that educational attainment was an excellent predictor of life success. I’m not breaking new ground here, but it costs a lot less to educate someone than it does to house, feed, clothe and provide medical care to an inmate.

A recent Wall Street Journal article reported that New York City’s annual cost per inmate was $167,731 a year, almost what it costs to go to an Ivy League university for four years.

According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data that I could find:

— The average per-pupil funding for education averages $12,643;

— The average per inmate cost is $28,323;

— The federal Department of Education spent approximately $14 billion on Title I grants to local education agencies; and

— The total spending on incarceration at all levels of government was more than $74 billion.

Maybe it’s not this simple, but it seems to me to be a matter of education versus incarceration.

If we can help more young people graduate from high school and successfully complete post-secondary training, maybe we can pass the title of being the “World’s Most Incarcerated Nation” (there are currently more than 7 million adults in correctional institutions) to some other country.

To do that, we need to become more effective at intervening in the lives of young people and give them the tools to succeed in school and in life. A missed investment in education ends up costing a lot more in both human terms and in dollars.

One of the best examples of how early intervention can affect a person’s life is the High Scope/Perry Preschool Study, a longitudinal study conducted over four decades.

From 1962 to 1967, children ages 3 and 4 from high-poverty Chicago neighborhoods were randomly divided into two groups. One group participated in a high-quality preschool program, the other did not. Researchers tracked the study participants for 40 years.

In 2002, the researchers released their landmark study. It showed that adults who participated in the preschool program outperformed those who did not in three major categories: social responsibility, scholastic success and socioeconomic success.

Specifically, preschool program participants committed fewer crimes, had higher high-school, vocational-school and college graduation rates, and had higher earnings.

An interesting fact noted in the study was “a return to society of $16 for every tax dollar invested in the early care and education program.”

In the end, it’s a matter of priorities. We need to reverse our national priorities as they relate to crime and education and begin investing more money in high-quality, pre-school education.

As my father said to me after reading a draft of this column, “What this country needs are more teenagers wearing a cap and gown walking across a stage picking up a diploma and fewer wearing orange jumpsuits walking along a highway picking up trash.”

Paul Grasso is president and CEO of The Development Corporation, Clinton County, N.Y.

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