Adjust the dream of post-secondary education

EDUCATION-ECMThe 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. For others, they have obtained the degree but are strapped with debt beyond their means. Still others will tell you there is no such thing 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.

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 under-achiever. 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 and 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 (CNC) operator, is 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. Minnesota requires four-year-schools in the Minnesota State College and University system to accept community college courses. 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 academia. Once considered throwaway diplomas, online-only schools like the University of Phoenix are being joined by Florida Tech University, the University of Missouri and Texas A&M. Even the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul offers its mini MBA online. 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.

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 students in need annually.

The Congressional Budget Office is targeting the Pell program for cuts. Critics argue cutting Pell will hurt low-income students and ultimately, the nation. The federal government needs to commit to funding Pell Grants or the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” will only get wider.

Consumers need to follow through, too, and be smart about 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, Va., 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 urge students to explore their options 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 from the ECM Editorial Board. The Record is part of ECM Publishers Inc.