Higher education shouldn’t be an impossible dream | OPINION

Marysville-Pilchuck High School will graduate the class of 2012 on June 11. Marysville Getchell follows on the 13th. I have no idea who has been chosen to speak at the ceremonies but for graduation speakers across the nation, it’s going to be a challenge this year. I’ve been bothered by the question, what would I say if called upon to speak?

My past gave little help. I have no recollection who it was or what he said, other than it was more of what I’d heard for years. The world is eager to welcome you. Opportunity beckons. You are limited only by the limits of your imagination.

It was true. Businesses hired like crazy in those days. My best friend hired on at Spokane’s Brown Trailers for an inflation-adjusted wage of $13.44 per hour. The United States had emerged from WWII as the only nation with factories intact while most other countries’ plants had been bombed to pieces. We weren’t just one nation indivisible. We were one nation incomparable!

Anyone anteing up about $100 in tuition was accepted by a state university. With prices like that, who needed student loans? My wife and I built a 2,200-square-foot home in Marysville for $17,500. Inflation helped us to double our $108 per month payments to retire the mortgage in 15 years. Numbers like that colored a graduate’s view of the future.

Those golden years spawned a myth that unlimited opportunity and economic growth defined America and were the birthright of generations to come. The myth infected history books, political rhetoric and personal expectations. And graduation speeches. But the  myth-driven notion that our system is self-correcting and that everything works out fine if left alone came unglued. College tuition became unaffordable while industry couldn’t find enough educated employees.

War-ravaged nations managed to put themselves together again. Some with our help. While U.S. industry chugged on with WWII-style tooling, emerging economies combined the latest tooling with cheap labor. Industry by industry, American producers found themselves lagging in competitiveness. By 1965 foreigners were catching up and passing us. By 1980 they dominated manufacture of products ranging from shoes to hats and tractors to electronics. Our slice of the pie was narrowing which helped account for flat wages while costs of everything, including education, continued to grow.

At some point, speakers might switch their focus from graduates to the audience. Since a large part of the class of 2012 is college-bound, how to get there and stay there is a big issue of our times. Granted, Washington state has some top-quality universities but their cost has risen beyond the means of average American families.

Our higher education system may not be broken but it is certainly bent in the direction of not serving the state and nation’s needs. In its unaffordability, it compares with the astronomical cost of industrial gold stalling production of high-tech circuitry. Society isn’t being served when qualified applicants are denied entry because they can’t afford the tuition or don’t fit within schools’ quota of incoming freshmen. Meanwhile, Boeing is forever complaining that it can’t find enough educated job applicants.

The way China adjusted during the period of 1999 to 2009 was to increase its number of universities from 1,071 to 2,305. In the same period, Chinese undergrad and vo-tech enrollment jumped more than 400 percent. Speakers might remind graduates that politicians dodge such issues because they’re either too expensive or too grim to charm voters.

So speakers might say to audiences, “You can’t give up because the state dropped the ball. You can’t sideline your children’s potential because a short-sighted nation gave higher education such a low priority. It is up to you to prove once again that if you need to be sure something gets done, you have to do it yourself.”

Families can’t wait for government to make education affordable. While brilliance and inspiring resumes might earn scholarships, most students have found it necessary to take out student loans ranging from $25,000 for a Liberal Arts degree to $140,000 for Medicine. Imagine leaving a university burdened by that much debt. I won’t let my grandchildren suffer that.

Dads, moms, uncles, aunts, grandparents and siblings of university-bound students should have sit-down meetings to hammer out a financial plan. That package includes not only financial commitment but hopes and prayers of family that give extra motivational boost to a student’s efforts. Aside from the super-rich, university education needs to be a family affair. It’s an investment that helps to assure independence and purpose and done right, everyone benefits.

The GET (Guaranteed Education Tuition) is a practical option. Families invest in GET points with after-tax income, 100 points approximating the cost of a year of tuition. Payments near today’s cost are guaranteed to cover tomorrow’s tuition. The way tuition increases outpace inflation, the GET program shows a better rate of return than most investment options.

We’re talking patriotism here. It’s no exaggeration to say that the future of our nation depends on the education of young people.

Comments may be addressed to robertgraef@comcast.net.


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