18 January 2008

Writing the story of Arizona's future

In her 2008 State of the State address, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano lays out some bold forward thinking proposals. Though there is lots of good stuff in there, from plugging more mass transit and a Tucson-to-Phoenix rail line, to advocating measures to protect homebuyers, the most significant is the proposal to guarantee free tuition at any Arizona community college or state university for any 8th grader that keeps a ‘B’ average and stays out of trouble.

Let’s agree that any eighth grader who pledges to stay out of trouble and maintains at least a “B” average in high school will be guaranteed free tuition at any of our community colleges or state universities. Let’s act now for the class of 2012, and for every class thereafter, because the promise of these Centennial Scholars is the promise of Arizona’s next 100 years.

Rewarding students who are excelling is a good step, but we must recognize that higher education is something that all Arizona children will need to succeed. It’s a pathway to prosperity and, in Arizona, it’s also supposed to be affordable. I propose that, beginning next year, all Arizona universities guarantee that when a student begins college, his or her tuition will not be raised for four years – period. Times change and tuition will rise, but it shouldn’t go up once you’ve started your coursework. Call it a “fixed-rate” loan on the best investment we can make in Arizona’s future – our children.

Also proposed was a pledge to “lock in” tuition costs for 4 years for new enrollees.

Listening to the radio, I heard local talk hosts criticize the plan. One host boldly stated that it was a bad idea since college is definitely not for everybody. While I would agree that college is indeed not a choice for all, I think that it’s a sound decision for most.

In past times, a college education was not a prerequisite for career success. But then, that was a different age. The times of my parents, for example, serve as a stark contrast — in their day, a man without a high school diploma could easily obtain gainful employment that paid a middle class wage along with great benefits, including health care plans that dwarf what college professionals in 21st century America possess. And they made enough that Mom did not have to work, and could stay home and devote herself full time to care for children and house. But circa 2008, disparity in education is such that having a college degree means a career earnings differential of millions of dollars. I will post some research and studies on the matter when I get some time to locate them and link here, but suffice to say, it’s not even close.

Not that there are those who have succeeded without college — in fact, many of the best and brightest shunned higher education or dropped out to pursue their burning desire ahead of the pack. But that is the exception, not the rule.

Furthermore, in the global economy and universally networked society we now function in, higher order learning imperative. Dealing with rapid advances in technology and adapting to currents in information networks means emphasis on thinking skills is greater than ever. Farmers are few and long gone are days of manufacturing jobs. Plus, post high school experiences expose young adults to different cultures and different peoples, the kind of setting they will need whatever vocation they eventually engage in, post school days. Again, it’s a knowledge based economy, where we are bombarded with messages in an ever exponential increasing basis, and citizens need to be mentally armed against dogma, hucksters and intellectual fraud in general.

Finally, I offer my own experience as an anecdotal illustration — when I started college, I received grants and loans that enabled me to attend a university. That was the the time when Reagan first came to office as president, and then in successive years, those grants were eliminated or reduced by substantial means. And during my plight to achieve a bachelors degree, the cost of tuition doubled. I adapted by working multiple jobs and even taking time off to save money for school, but it’s far from an optimal plan. Had the financial requirements been as they were at the end of my education when I began college, I would not have been able to attend college. And well I know nobody (well except for family and friends) sheds a tear for me, I believe its a tragedy that young minds with potential would be denied higher learning simply due to economics.


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