GUEST OPINION: Our kids deserve the chance to succeed
February 25, 2013 · 10:24 AM
It’s a long way from Port Orchard to McMinnville, and the distance is measured in much more than miles. Eighteen years ago, I loaded up a third-hand Chevy Blazer with textbooks and a spaniel named Ole, bound for Pullman. I was trying to earn a doctorate – first ever in my family. Four years and an unknowable amount of coffee later, I pulled it off. Today I’m a tenured professor of economics. Life is good.
It would be easy to say I succeeded solely on my own, but that would be a lie. I come from a long line of teachers, engineers and naval officers. Bright, well-read people all, salt of the earth types and pillars of their communities – but by no means rich. Sending me to college was a stretch, let alone studying for a PhD. No, I made it because of the generosity of my neighbors. Some of the resources came from the
Lutheran Church; more still came from the local Rotary, VFW and American Legion. But the bulk of it came from taxpayers through grants from the Bureau of Reclamation and scholarships from Washington and Montana. My success lay in the faith of my fellow citizens that the nation was better when the son of an English teacher and a Navy Yard engineer, a shipyard kid with high SATs and a good head for math, deserved a shot even if his family didn’t have the money.
It’s a kindness I’ve never forgotten. Every day I teach with gratitude for the chances given to me, and I
do my best to honor the sacrifices made on my behalf by helping my students go as far as they can go — just as was done for me. Sadly, if I had to do it again, I couldn’t. The scholarships and programs I relied on for my education are gone, victims of belt-tightening at all levels of government. At the same time, the cost of college has risen much faster than the typical middle-class income. What was tight 20 years ago is inconceivable now.
I’m an economist. I can read the numbers. I understand what’s happening. Changes in technology have dramatically increased the cost of providing an education while reductions in state higher-education
budgets coupled with a transition from grant-based to loan-based federal financial aid have made all forms of post-secondary education more expensive. Coupled with stagnant real wages for the middle
60 percent of American society for 40 years, and the ability to pay for a more-expensive education has gone down. But understanding it doesn’t make the pain sting any less. If anything, it makes it worse, because seeing the reasons means I can also see the answers.
On the Washington side of the Columbia, the legislature should restore funding to the “Washington Scholars” program that encourages the best and brightest in the state to pursue their educations at home. Additionally, the state should find a way to stabilize – but not end – the Guaranteed Education
Tuition program, easily the best value in higher education in the Pacific Northwest. In Oregon, the state’s needs are more fundamental. Developing a tax system that does not whipsaw higher education, particularly the smaller regional campuses and community colleges, is a must. Steady revenue, with no ‘kicks’ to university budgets, is essential to the state’s future success.
On our best days America is a remarkable meritocracy; Lord knows my life is proof of that. But for a meritocracy to work, we need to make sure the best – regardless of who they are and where they are from – get a shot. Education is the great equalizer, but right now falling higher education funding means too many kids of high skills and modest means never get that shot.
Eighteen years ago I was a punk kid from Port Orchard with more potential than money. I survived and succeeded on the faith – and taxes - of my community. Quite frankly, it makes so very proud not only of where I have gone but where I am from. Yet it also makes me know that the time has come for us to renew our faith – and our taxes – for each other. Let’s make sure our kids have the same chances we had by paying for higher education.
Eric Schuck is an economics professor at Linfield College in McMinnville.