I recently participated in one of the many annual student activism events Thursday in Salem. Overall, aside from some confusion about when exactly the rally was starting and where people were suppose to meet up, I thought the rally was a good show of energy. A rally of several hundred students and education advocates descended on the capitol to fight to advocate for $510 million in funding for Oregon community colleges, $850 million for Oregon universities and $15 million for the Oregon Opportunity Grant.
Yellow balloons flew over students with the amount of student loan debt they are carrying and will be carrying for years to come. The crowd of about 400 chanted that education is a right not a privileged; that legislators needed to stay on track and not roll back funding this session. Student debt has always been a problem, but in the last decade it has ballooned into a monster of a hindrance to graduating students being able to become productive members of society. Students can't buy homes, cars, make investments if as soon as they leave school they are saddled with, on average $25,000 in debt. It would be one thing if students could get a living wage job after graduation, but far too many students are leaving school directionless. Some even question if they should have gone to college in the first place if they knew the job prospects would be so grim.
As I chat with friends and email back and forth between folks, I am constantly reminded of the days in K-12 when everyone was encouraged to go to college. It was always one of the reasons teachers and parents used to entice everyone to do good work. "If you don't get good grades, you won't get into college", "if you want a better job, you have to go to college". Many Millennials are now finding out the hard way that just because you are well educated does not mean you will get a better job. I have known several college graduates, with advanced degrees working as waiters, gas station attendants, and cashiers while they wait for that high paying job to become available. This of course means that the folks who just have a high school diploma or GED are being driven from jobs that traditionally did not require advanced degrees.
Think about this: every time a fast food restaurant or a retail store hires a college grad for a minimum wage job, that graduate and employer is compounding the poverty in their community. More and more jobs that never before required a person with a degree are now being held by someone with a college degree. By telling a generation of students that you need to go to college, we have essentially laid waste to one end of our economic spectrum. We create more renters, more folks living pay check to pay check to get by and more folks unable to build savings and capital to reinvest in our economy.
There were several speakers at the rally, including Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek, Chris Harker, and Fred Girod. As the Speaker spoke, I couldn't help but shake my head at a few of her comments. Everyone loves education. I have never met a politician that didn't support education. She spoke about all the tax money Oregon was losing out on by corporations that use tax shelters in Bermuda and other overseas locales. Funny, she didn't say anything about the corporations that use Beaverton or Aloha as a tax shelter. I guess that must mean that tax shelters are bad only if they are non Oregon tax shelters. If the intention is to have a serious discussion in the coming months or as it is looking like, years about creating a revenue system that meets Oregon's needs we need to start reassessing all of these tax credits and loopholes in the tax code.
State Senator Fred Girod stood out as the lone Republican to take the podium. He commented on how expensive it is to become a dentist in this day and age and how dental students are graduating with too much debt and how that has to change. The question I would have for Senator Girod and any other member of his caucus would be: Are you willing to raise revenue ( yes, I mean taxes), to make it more affordable for students to become dentists, librarians, computer techs, linguists, and whatever other careers people get educated for?
'The one thing we're doing is prioritizing education.' is the kind of rhetoric that should sound nice to students, but from what I was able to gather from the student lobbyists who had met with legislators it didn't sound like fully funding education was getting prioritized the way we had hoped. The people have spoken before on the priority of education in this state.
PERS was not discussed by any of the speakers. Kudos to whoever was controlling the message at the rally. Even the Republican didn't dare mention it. Where was the discussion about voting in the May 2013 elections? That was also absent. Money is not the only important part of education policy in Oregon. The people who make the policies and guide our community schools and colleges are also important. Makes you wonder if the organizers are even aware there is an election coming up. If you weren't aware. You are now. Vote when your ballot comes in the mail this May!
Expect to see tuition to continue to rise. My friends with children right now are already wondering how they will pay for the likely 100,000+ bill for a standard 4 year degree from a state college in another 20 years. It also makes one wonder what our economy will be like once in 20 years. We just broke the 30% mark of people 25 or older holding a 4 year degree. What happens when 60% of us have them? What is going to be the nature of the job market in this world?
I'll be around to see it, but if we don't prepare now for it....It's time to start treating higher ed, like K-12. Everyone should be entitled to attend a 4 year state college of their choosing, by removing the debt problem it no longer becomes important that the job you get pays enough to pay back whoever happens to own your loan at the time you graduate. Remember, your loans are sold all the time, in bundles for pennies on the dollar. If that is the case; why is it so important to pay them back if the loan holder is willing to take such a loss?
At least the weather was nice for the rally.....