Wisconsin has a problem. We have seen declining enrollment in the University of Wisconsin System, the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) and the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (WAICU).

And it matters. To be competitive in the knowledge economy and to address Wisconsin’s workforce shortages, we need to increase the level of educational attainment in this state.

Unfortunately, we are seeing a concerning trend moving us in the complete opposite direction. This past year, largely due to the pandemic, users of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in Wisconsin were down 6% on average. Students of limited means are putting off their dreams of pursuing higher education to deal with pressing financial matters.

Filling out the FAFSA has a direct correlation to enrollment. Students with the lowest incomes who complete a FAFSA are 127% more likely to immediately enroll in college than those who did not complete the application. Financial help is there, but they have to apply.

Most jobs in Wisconsin, even before the pandemic, require some form of postsecondary credential. Recognizing this, the UW System, WTCS and WAICU have together set as a goal to have 60% of the state’s working age population with some type of postsecondary education. But Wisconsin will not meet that goal if we continue to backslide.

Wisconsin has great colleges and universities. So why is enrollment falling short?

A major force driving down college enrollment is a widespread misrepresentation of the facts. The old nursery rhyme “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is itself not factual. Ask someone who has been bullied. Words matter.

Even some influential people are calling into question the value of a college degree. While most of them and their children have or are seeking a degree, they are questioning the choices or behavior of others. Unfortunately, the rhetoric of “you don’t need college” or “people with a college degree are unemployed” is having a significant impact on student behavior at the very time their education is even more important for their personal future and for our state’s and nation’s economic future.

Young people are listening, and enrollment is declining. A recent survey of 18-year-olds showed that 70% were persuaded that “higher education is not worth the cost” even though the facts say otherwise. The return on investment of a college education is nearly 14% — far exceeding investment benchmarks in stocks (7%) or bonds (3%).

Of all the new jobs created since the Great Recession of 2007-09, 99% require a college degree. Baccalaureate degree holders earn 67% more than high school graduates, and 111% more than people without a high school diploma.

There is no denying that Wisconsin needs more welders. Wisconsin also needs more engineers, nurses, physicians and teachers. Wisconsin needs educated and trained workers in all fields.

How we talk about postsecondary education matters. Let’s get our facts straight and work together for all students, their families and Wisconsin.