Adjusting the dream of post-secondary education

The ultimate goal for many generations has been a college education for every child.

With hard work, a scholarship here and a grant there, college was in reach for almost anyone willing to put in the hours. Student loan debt was an issue for some, but loans were small and easily paid back once the student became employed.

Much is different today. A four-year college degree is out of reach for many middle-class families who cannot produce $100,000 for a university degree. Others have obtained the degree but are strapped with debt beyond their means. Still others will tell you there is no such things as a “four-year” degree – it takes five or more years to progress through the maze of college requirements while working 30 or 40 hours a week.

It is time to adjust the dream to fit reality in the 21st century. Part of this needed change is a cultural attitude adjustment – some will need policy change and perhaps legislation and additional funding.

The first attitude that needs to change is our prejudice against technical education. We continue to denigrate “trade schools” as places for the less intelligent and the underachiever. Those stereotypes are just not true. Quality technical education will produce workers who can spend a lifetime in a high-paying career. Architectural technology and fluid power engineering, for example, have 100 percent placement with starting pay at $28.58 an hour.

Top-notch technical colleges are abundant in Minnesota. Private schools like Dunwoody College of Technology, and high-ranked public schools like Anoka and Hennepin Technical Colleges, Alexandria Technical & Community College, and Minnesota West Community and Technical College provide numerous opportunities for students.

Business leaders and chambers of commerce will tell you about the “skills gap,” where jobs go vacant because qualified workers are not available. One such job, called computer numerical control operator (CNC operator), is often cited as a lucrative job without enough workers. CNC operators start at about $17 an hour. Projected job openings this decade in the U.S. are 47,800, with a growth rate of 10-19 percent.

Another attitude adjustment is needed toward community colleges. Some in academia thumb their noses at community colleges, yet in many cases the quality of education is better (try 40-50 students in a beginning English class, compared to 300-400 in a university auditorium course), much cheaper and more accessible to many. In Minnesota, we have requirements within the Minnesota State College and University system where community college courses will be accepted at four-year schools – this should be universal.

We need a continued commitment to choice for our students. As a recent ECM Editorial Board editorial urged, “We strongly believe high school, college and state officials should continue to provide even more dual-credit choices for students.”

Options for earning college credit include Post-Secondary Enrollment Options, online learning and credit for knowledge and experience. Many universities are experimenting with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – these should become part of the post-secondary education repertoire.

Online degrees are earning respect within the education field. Once considered throwaway diplomas, online-only schools like the University of Phoenix are being joined by Florida Tech University, University of Missouri and Texas A&M offering online degrees. Even the prestigious University of St. Thomas in St. Paul is now offering its mini MBA in an online option. Minnesota State-Mankato also offers online bachelor’s completion, graduate certificates and master’s degrees.

Online education offers flexibility to working students and saves transportation and lodging for others, one more option for students.

It may take lawmakers to force a few other issues: For example, Congress needs to continue commitment to the Pell Grant program, which provides up to $5,550 per student annually who can show financial need.

The Congressional Budget Office is targeting the Pell program for cuts because overall costs have risen in recent years. A CBO report suggests tightening application standards and decreasing the grant amount. Critics argue cutting Pell will hurt low-income students, and ultimately the nation. The federal government needs to commit to funding Pell Grants as another way to make educational opportunities available to all income levels or the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” will only get wider.

Minnesota legislators deserve a “thank you” from college students for leveraging additional funding for a promise that the state’s colleges and universities will freeze tuition for three years.

We need to follow through, too, and be smart consumers of post-secondary education. We should send our children to institutions that rank high on the “quality for less” surveys. Consider New Mexico Institute of Mining, $15,754 a year tuition, but a net cost of $8,600 to students with financial need. The University of Richmond, in Virginia, estimates financial needs students will pay about $10,000 a year. The University of North Carolina–Asheville, says net price for out-of-state students with financial aid is about $8,800.

Competition for high school graduates is good for all – technical schools are bringing extended career options and challenging universities to be cognizant of overall costs and to not feel entitled to constant tuition price hikes. Technology is expanding online learning opportunities.

While we continue to believe that post-secondary education is vital to most high school graduates, we encourage those students to explore the many options available and demand a high return on every education dollar.

Our universities need to put the student first in every equation. Our state and national lawmakers must continue to prioritize higher education and pursue ways to make post-secondary education available to everyone.

And finally we must adjust our cultural expectations – college is not the only option for the high school graduate, but one of many in preparing for a lifelong, rewarding career.

This editorial is a product of the ECM Editorial Board. The Forest Lake Times is part of ECM Publishers Inc.