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Sensible Solutions for Iowa

May 12, 2010
Robert D. Koob
Des Moines Register
June 11, 2000

Success depends on plenty of people, typically immigrants, and education
Robert D. Koob, University of Northern Iowa President

It’s time to add to the melting pot. Governor Vilsack has succinctly summarized Iowa’s need for more Iowans, younger Iowans and better paid Iowans. There are sensible and less-than-sensible ways to try to achieve the goals implied by the Governor’s summary.

A sensible approach is currently working its way through the Iowa 2010 Council. The concept is to make Iowa a more attractive destination for immigrants, both from other parts of the United States and from around the world.

More people are key. Examination of the economically most successful areas of the United States reveals at least two factors at work: plentiful supplies of people (usually immigrant populations) and plentiful educational opportunity. On a smaller scale we see the same phenomenon here in Iowa – the highest paid employees are found in the largest communities. The simple economic reality is that the more people served, the more wealth created.

In today’s economy, the best educated serve the most people. They’re also the most productive, and as a result, are most often the best paid. On a world scale, communication, computing, and transportation technologies have allowed the creation of a global economy, serving ever-larger numbers of people. It is no accident that the United States, the world’s best-educated country, has benefited the most from the creation of this global economy.

The lesson for Iowa is simple. We have a quality educational system. We need more people.

On the other hand, a less-than-sensible suggestion is that we limit educational opportunity for our residents so they won’t be tempted to move away in pursuit of higher salaries outside the state.

Even though two thirds of University of Northern Iowa graduates remain in Iowa, it has been suggested that some of our academic programs "have gotten too good" because our graduates can compete for jobs anywhere in the world.

UNI also has been criticized by some for our international experiential learning programs. (UNI is first in the nation among public comprehensive universities in international opportunities for its students.) Out-of-state intern opportunities have been criticized because they expose students to locations other than Iowa.

It would be incredibly short sighted to handicap Iowa citizens with less than the best of educational opportunities out of fear that we might somehow equip them to leave us. Rather Iowa should turn its attention to doing the positive things that have a chance to meet the goal of more Iowans, younger Iowans and better paid Iowans.

We need more people across the economic spectrum. We cannot attract professionals to Iowa if we cannot staff the services their higher salaries demand. The economic reality is that there is a larger demand at the service level than at the professional level. If we ignore that reality, our attempts to attract people at the professional level will fail.

While it may not be popular to say we should attract more lower paid people to Iowa, the plain truth is we cannot have the higher paid without the lower paid. It’s a fact. It’s reality. But more importantly, it’s a great opportunity.

This brings us back to the recommendation expected from the Iowa 2010 Council to make Iowa a more attractive destination for immigrants. After becoming a state, Iowa’s population grew because this was an attractive destination for immigrants. Immigrants built the Iowa of the last century, and immigrants can help build the Iowa of the next century.

Robert D. Koob is president of the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.