Progress or decline?

It should be obvious that everyone in the nation—everyone in the world—benefits when Americans go to college. Americans have earned a reputation for inventiveness and technological advances. Are we ready to give that up?

From James Webb telescope

Back in the day, when the average U.S. worker did just fine with a high school education (or less), the few who went to college were easily subsidized by state taxes up to 80% of the cost. But as the world became increasingly technological, as science became multiple branches of study of everything from our genetic code to the finer points of interstellar rocketry, more and more young people wanted to know more than what high school could teach them.

Few among us want to go back to time when our food supply depended on a plow and a mule and day after day of unrelenting labor, when lights went out with sunset, when one out of every one hundred women died from childbirth. We may feel stressed with the pace of life, but we cannot turn back the tide of progress. The alternative to progress is stagnation, or at worst, destruction.

The United States is slipping behind other nations in the educational achievements of its young people. Rather than analyzing and correcting the reasons behind this decline, our elected leaders succumb to the easy way out which is to facilitate the transfer of tax dollars to private schools and relegate college funding to high-interest loans.

The reluctance, and in many cases the angry protests, of conservatives to support reduction of student loan debt is yet another example of the shortsightedness of this particular slice of our population. These same folks are eager to take advantage of the latest pharmaceuticals, the newest technology in cell phones and digital conveniences/entertainment, as if it all sprang fully formed from the head of Zeus. News flash: These and the many other advancements we enjoy every day are the result of people going to college.

Why would we want to strangle the future our young people can offer?

It could be that there’s a subconscious inclination among conservatives to dig in their heels and not go into that promising future. Maybe the reluctance to facilitate college education is a rejection of modern life and its collection of pros and cons, and instead nostalgia for a long-lost past where completing 8th grade was the biggest accomplishment anyone could expect. That wasn’t so long ago, back when most families lived on a farm and grew most of their own food, when telephones and electricity didn’t exist. But not even the most radical conservative is ready to give up the morning shower, or their cell phone, or the motor vehicle that takes them wherever they want to go.

Progress means finding solutions to problems large and small, problems like Covid 19 (SARS-CoV-2), a virus that so far has left a million Americans dead. In less than a year, our college grads developed a vaccine that provides protection from death and, in most cases, protection from infection, by this virus. Are we ready to give up that kind of science?

The U. S. has to choose whether to continue to lag behind other nations in supporting the education of its young. President Biden and Democrats in general have supported this modest reduction of student loan debt. But over half of student loans will remain to be paid, racking up compound interest that increases the amount owed faster than payments can be made.

It’s a rigged system. Student loans, unlike any other loan, cannot be written off in a bankruptcy, so even when illness or other tragedies of life crash down on a person’s shoulders, those student loans still must be paid. The cost of higher education continues to increase as colleges try to accommodate the loss of state funding while still providing the advanced education students need.

Higher education is the path to future successes for our nation, not only in medicine but in every other aspect of our civilization. Our supply of food and water will increasingly depend on how well we can mitigate the damage caused by climate change. Our health depends on our ability to stave off more exotic viruses. We need to know more about the causes of diseases like cancer, tuberculosis and Alzheimer’s. When we encourage the pursuit of higher education, we not only address future needs for food and medicine, but also provide for an endless advancement of every aspect of human existence.

We need to move our thinking away from the idea that college is ‘extra.’ While we will always need workers skilled in certain trades that are better taught through vocational schools and apprenticeship, increasingly we need people who can program software, refine microchips, and analyze the human genome. And never forget the thousands of college graduates we rely on every day: doctors and dentists, lawyers and judges, engineers and architects, chemists and researchers, managers and accountants, historians and diplomats, psychologists and psychiatrists, and teachers—to name a few.

It is past time for our educational system to provide affordable college education. One way or the other, a student’s cost for college has to return to a reasonable amount—if not free. States need to shoulder more of the burden, as they did before Reaganomics took effect. Lenders for student loans need to be limited to a one-time charge of interest. Colleges need to find ways to reduce costs.

We face a national emergency in education. Public school teachers need much better pay. Taxpayer funds must never be diverted to private schools which don’t have to accommodate special needs students or which promulgate narrow belief systems. As long as our brightest minds are handicapped by the cost of college education, our nation suffers.

The proud image of our nation, which conservatives love to flag-wave about, is not only about those hardworking linemen, farmers, plumbers and other ‘blue-collar’ jobs, but also about the college grads who figured out how to engineer a tractor that can be operated from an air-conditioned cab while pulling a ten-row cultivator, or who calculated the weight and conductivity of wires to carry our power grid, or who invented flex lines and connector glue to replace labor/cost-intensive copper pipe fittings. It takes all of us.

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