A Hat

Today is Super Tuesday. I’ll probably write about the primary results later this week but for today I will simply inform you that living in North Carolina I availed myself of the opportunity to in-person early vote. (Yes, I put my votes where my endorsements are voting for Joe Biden, Josh Stein and Jeff Jackson.) But today I want to talk about something else and the catalyst was the hat a man was wearing as I exited and he entered the local Y last Friday morning.

While I’d seen him around, I had never spoken to the man and certainly didn’t know him. His hat bore the logo of the alma mater of my two oldest grandchildren and I asked him if he went there. He replied that he did not but his oldest daughter was currently an undergrad there.

As our conversation went on, he expressed the burden that the high cost of a college education placed on a family. The school in question is a state school and much less expensive than most, if not all, the private universities in North Carolina. (Allow me a point of home state, albeit adopted, bragging here; North Carolina’s public educational system is generally regarded as the jewel of the South.) I’m assuming he, like me, lived in the general neighborhood which is pretty solid middle to upper middle class. Still the cost of a post-secondary education is too high for most families to easily afford especially if they have multiple children. (Keep in mind that reproduction is in society’s and the economy’s best interest and a reproduction rate of approximately 2.1 offspring per couple is necessary just to reach replacement level.)

Now let me get into the substance of my argument. I feel that with a few restrictions an education through a bachelor’s degree should be free just like it is through high school. Today’s economy is such that a bachelor’s degree is a basic requirement to be hired for most good jobs. People with one are more likely to stay employed and be paid a higher wage making them contributors to “the pot” not taking from it. We are in a global economy and we need to maintain a highly skilled workforce in order to compete with other advanced countries.

The first rule I would make is that in order to get the “free ride” you would have to be making progress toward a degree at a state school in your state. Defining progress toward a degree would take some work but that is not insurmountable. The exception to the in-state provision would be if the program you wanted wasn’t offered in your state.

I’m a state school guy – first in my family to graduate from high school let alone college – but my in-state requirement isn’t a prejudice. If you want to go to a private school or go out of state “just because” that is your private decision and you pay for it.

As to the cost, I view the cost of education as an investment. The state will reap the benefits of that investment for years to come. The exception would be a state that doesn’t have adequate post-graduation economic opportunities to avoid a brain drain. If that is the case in your state then you have another problem to address. Avoiding it will not solve it. In fact, it will only worsen. As an important aside, the treatment of women is becoming increasingly important in the retention and recruitment of the best and the brightest. Why would a young person of either gender want to live in a state where women are treated as possessions of the state legislature?

The other thing that would have to be worked out is what do we do with the kids who don’t want or need to go to a formal post-secondary school but want to enhance their skills and thereby employment opportunities? Apprentice and vocational opportunities should be available that lead to good jobs where you shower after work. We need those people in our work/service force.

Part of that can be solved by the more nimble and less academically taxing community college. A new plant is moving in. Your four-year school will be of little, if any, immediate help but the local community college can put together a program tailored to the manufacturer’s need almost overnight.

My next point may be almost blasphemy in the South, but I’m a strong union guy and historically the unions ran the best apprentice programs turning out skilled employees who were not easily exploited.

The biggest challenge to getting a program like this approved is today’s Republican party which has for some time now waged a war on public education. Many of its financiers want a large exploitable pool of labor. The other problem with education is the high positive correlation to the ability to think critically. If you are highly skilled at critical thinking you are much less likely to vote for Republican candidates or be fooled by their disinformation.

Do my proposals need a bit of refinement? Certainly. But making families endure financial challenges in order to educate their youngsters is certainly not in anyone’s interest.

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