Education Is the Key to a Better Quality of Life for Women

Education is the key to a better quality life in America. This is especially true for women, particularly the millions of them who are living on the brink of poverty -- one illness, one home repair or one lost paycheck away from economic ruin.

I have seen the cycle of poverty firsthand. As a longtime educator, I have seen teenagers drop out of school to have a child, only to see that same child follow in her mother's footsteps 16 years later.

For these women, a college education would be the surest way out of poverty and to break this sad family cycle. One example has stuck with me for years because it shows just how powerful education can be in a woman's life.

When I taught in the developmental program at Fairmont State College, a student I worked with struggled through the program. She had difficulties at every turn, but she persevered and graduated.

When it came time for her graduation ceremony, her family questioned her decision to participate and pay the $15 for her cap and gown. Before the ceremony, I asked her why she chose to participate in the face of her family's objections. She told me she wasn't doing it for herself or her family -- she was walking in the ceremony so her 3-year-old daughter would see her graduate and know that she also could do that.

She knew the powerful impact that she would have on her daughter, even if she did not know the cold hard fact that women with only a high school diploma are three to four times more likely to live on the brink of financial disaster than those with a college degree.

Today, 42 million women are living on this financial edge, trying to make ends meet for themselves and the 28 million children who depend on them. And in many cases, these women are the sole or main breadwinners in their households.

This is a national crisis, one that is well-documented in a new report from the Center for American Progress, "The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Pushes Back From the Brink."

The report paints a compelling picture of the transformation the American family has undergone over the past half-century, with women now heading up more families on their own while struggling to make ends meet and juggling the demands of caregiver and breadwinner.

It also details how our culture and public policies have failed to adapt to this transformation, leaving millions of women and their families in financial jeopardy and depriving our economy of the shot in the arm these women could provide if their financial status is improved.

And while it includes a number of recommendations for the government and private sector, the report makes it clear that "the most important first step" in this process rests with the women themselves "making smarter choices about their finances, education and personal relationships."

The irony is that the report comes after American women have made phenomenal economic gains and so many women have shattered glass ceilings in the corporate and political worlds. Today, women comprise half the U.S. workforce, earn more than half of all college degrees and hold half of all professional and management jobs.

Still, the Shriver Report makes a convincing argument that we need to address the financial insecurity of American women living on the brink not as a "women's issue" but an economic one.

In addition, we must continue to stress that nothing empowers American women more than education. We need to mentor them, give them role models and show them that their ambitions are limitless. And that includes impressing upon them the idea of "college before kids," as the Shriver Report notes.

This is particularly important in West Virginia, which ranks 8th out of 51 (50 states and the District of Columbia) in teen birth rates -- 43.5 births per 1,000 females under the age of 19, compared to the national average of 31.3 per 1,000.

One in three girls in our state cites pregnancy as the reason for dropping out of high school. And this just pushes them closer to the financial brink.

Seventy-eight percent of children born to teenage mothers who have never married and did not graduate from high school live in poverty, compared to 9 percent of children born to married women over 20 who are high school graduates.

Breaking the cycle that is holding back so many women is going to require a lot of creative thinking. It's going to take a challenging curriculum and a commitment from students. It's going to take new partnerships involving schools and businesses. And it's going to take a host of "wraparound" services, such as health care, afterschool and weekend programs, child nutrition, tutoring and mentoring. Some states are experimenting with "full service" schools. And some, like West Virginia, have schools with nurseries and daycare for teen mothers.

The West Virginia State Board of Education assesses not only what our students should be learning but also how they should be learning. And the Board is committed to ensuring that all our students -- girls and boys -- graduate from high school ready for college or a career, with skill sets that will take them as far as their talent and drive will take them.

Education has never mattered more than it does today. It is the new currency of the global economy. It is essential for success, and the more you have, the better off you -- and your family -- will be.

There is an old proverb that says: "If you educate a man, you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate a family." I would take it a step further and say that in today's economy, if you educate a woman, you strengthen a family and a nation, and that benefits everyone.