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As Long as We Remember...

May 11, 2004

A College Education? Now More than Ever!

Tony Soltero

Most of us remember our adolescence. Sometimes it was idyllic, sometimes it was confusing, and sometimes teen angst washed over our pathetic little existences to the point where we couldn't perform functions as basic as cleaning up our rooms.

It is a time when the frivolities of childhood begin to be pushed aside by the serious business of planning for one's independence and life as an adult. The process doesn't happen without a fight, but most teenagers, whose parents offer them strong guidance, usually mature to the point where they recognize the value of a college education. And they plan accordingly.

And make no mistake, a college degree is immensely valuable. It opens doors for the people who earn one, and it provides our nation with the pool of skilled, talented contributors it needs to remain competitive on the world stage.

It's no coincidence that America prospered enormously in the decades after the GI Bill provided a free college education for those who served our nation in World War II. Most of these returning veterans -- many from working-class backgrounds -- would have never considered attending a university before then. With a new huge and heretofore untapped well of talent being given the opportunity to develop its skills, our economy soared, and America became the richest and most powerful country the planet had ever seen.

This national commitment to higher education has served us well in many ways. But we're at risk of losing our edge in this department, if we haven't already.

Why? Because a college education is out of financial reach for an increasing number of young people.

According to a recent report in The Frederick News-Post, the cost of attending the University of Maryland at College Park is slated to go up between 5% and 9.9% next year. The state legislature has passed a bill attempting to hold the line at 5%; Governor Robert Ehrlich has signaled that he might veto it, forcing the higher increase.

This issue isn't confined to state-supported institutions; McDaniel College in Westminster (Western Maryland to its alumni) is hiking its tuition by 6.6%. Hood College is implementing a 5% increase. And on it goes, at the county, state, and national levels.

These increases might seem marginal and manageable on the surface. For many young people, the higher fees aren't much more than a nuisance. But for many other kids, these tuition hikes are the difference between a college degree and a service-level job at a big-box retailer; or between a college degree and health insurance.

Many college-age kids, faced with these price increases, are now left with two unsavory options: drop out of college altogether, or go neck-deep in debt and resign one's self to a modern-day version of indentured servitude.

This is everybody's loss. A young person misses out on an opportunity to strengthen his future earning power. And the rest of us lose as well. How do we know that the young woman possibly destined to unlock the secret for curing leukemia hasn't dropped out of school because she had to, well, eat? A gifted young man with Nobel Prize potential might decide to just skip college and go into a less demanding field, just because the prospect of starting his professional career staring squarely at $100,000 in debt isn't worth the trouble.

There's more. Many newly minted college grads have to expend such a large proportion of their entry-level salaries on student debt service that it leaves precious little for housing, transportation, health care, and just plain living. This, of course, isn't good for economic activity within these industries, and others.

Sure, a college kid can "get a job;" in the past that has always been a reliable way to finance one's education. But given the unemployment rate today, and a "recovering" economy that stubbornly refuses to create new jobs, how much of an option is that anymore? Not to mention that there's no way that the low salaries of entry-level jobs could possibly cover the cost of tuition anymore, unless the youngster lands an internship at Halliburton, or someplace similar.

As a society, we love to say how much we value education. But our actions haven't been matching our words. At a time when college costs are soaring, to the point where even privileged families are feeling the pinch, our government is reducing its support of higher education. Gotta protect those tax cuts, I suppose. Meanwhile, state and local governments around the nation seem to have no trouble finding money for sports stadiums and corporate welfare.

We're only hurting ourselves and our country with this shortsighted attitude. If there's anything that should be given away freely and made available to as many people as possible, it's an education. A dollar spent on education today is five dollars saved on welfare and law enforcement tomorrow.202 320-7151

Of course, some have said the government's inertia on this escalating crisis is deliberate -- by making college affordable to fewer young people, the potential pool for military service is expanded accordingly. And we all know what our current government's priorities are.

But even from that perspective, a full commitment to education IS a matter of national self-interest and security. If we don't act upon making college more affordable to the children of working families, we will lose ground to countries that do. Eventually a foreign power that commits itself to educating its people -- rather than making mealy-mouthed excuses about how "there's no money" -- will develop better infrastructure, better medical care, and better weaponry than we do.

The classic United Negro College Fund slogan, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste," has never been more relevant than it is today.

Can we afford to subsidize students pursuing higher education, even if it means doing away with some of these precious tax cuts?

We can't afford not to.

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