On the value of public education

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By Tim Young of Portland, Oregon. Tim is a former student body president at Portland State and a former member of the Oregon State Board of Higher Education. Tim is a University of Oregon '03, '05 graduate. In 2009, Tim contributed "Saving democracy by investing in higher education".

It is hard to image Oregon without our public schools, community colleges and universities. So interwoven they are into our society, sometimes it is easy to take them for granted. What would we ever do without them? What if they didn't exist? How would that impact Oregon?

The easiest example is Nike. Without the University of Oregon, arguably, Nike would not exist. Without the infrastructure for a smart, hard-working young entrepreneur to utilize, a world-wide company may never have been created. Facebook, started through universities and someday with the right amount of magic and open door scholastic opportunity a new Intel or Mentor Graphics will emerge from the minds of well-rounded students. The list goes on where one can point to the symbiotic relationship between private sector gains, and public sector investments in education.

In education "there are known unknowns, and unknown unknowns" to paraphrase a famous US politician. A lot of what happens on college campuses is under the radar, in my experience and perspective. Out of classroom learning is huge and peer-to-peer interactions within a diversity of thought and personal backgrounds lends itself to what I would call a well-rounded education. I feel like there are things we just cannot measure in education no matter how hard we try, and that we should learn to accept that. There are still a lot of good things happening at our schools, community colleges and universities despite what may show up on the tests. Nonetheless, all is not well with our kindergarten through graduate school matrix of learning in Oregon. There always will be room for improvement.

Degrees are more expensive to obtain year after year. Many students take on student loans that requires employment to pay back. That is not all that certain of a prospect in this economy. In recent news reports, young men and women have turned to selling their bodies to pay for college. It is true strip clubs and classrooms are competing for the same demographic but does that mean we should we retract our responsibilities to our universities, community colleges and k-12 system when they need us most? I will argue we almost have already at our public universities. That needs to change.

Between the periods of 1979 and 2009, tuition at the University of Oregon alone (not counting fees and living expenses) went up 841% adjust for inflation using the CPI. That means for every one dollar spent on tuition in 1979, students in 2009 were spending over eight dollars to arguably get the same education. Image that if you went to school at the UO in 1979. Now you may be helping to pay for your kids to go and know all too well how much more expensive it is to attend. This isn't proper public policy; it is not sustainable to user fee students to death. Rather, we should help students and families pay for this burdensome cost as a more shared responsibility because of all the public and private benefits of these investments. Yes, I am talking taxes.

I almost don't care what or how we tax in order to achieve the goal of quality, accessible and affordable higher education. I just know that we need to do more of it 'cause this ain't workin'. When we invest one dollar in public universities, it has a multiplier effect in the economy which creates not only more money but, jobs. And, it is all interconnected - the needs of our k-12, community colleges and universities. Without them we would be poorer for it. With strong investments over the next 30 years, both private and more public, maybe we can change our entire state economy, and future. Please consider making a donation to a scholarship program, even if you don't have kids. Scholarship donation information can be obtained from the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, 800-452-8807. Donations are tax-deductible.

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    I agree on the importance of public education.

    Unfortunately, what we have as public education systems in Oregon, both K-12 and higher ed, are outdated in terms of the skills taught (foreign languages and sciences, for examples, are not strong enough) and increasingly technologically and cost-effectively behind (the failure to embrace the cost-efficiencies of online learning). In these cases, there are existing stakeholders that do not want change and resist it. This makes it difficult to embrace more investment in public education. Much of it would be wasted.

    Two examples of educational roads not yet taken in Oregon.

    In Utah, the business community wants a multilingual workforce. Utah is in the process of converting most of its elementary schools to bilingual immersion programs (half-day in English, half-day in a foreign language) (here). This Fall they have 57 such schools (16 more than last year): 31 in Spanish, 17 in Mandarin and 9 in French. Utah plan to have 100 such schools by 2015. And looking ahead to probable trading partners, the business community wants to add immersion programs in German, Japanese and Portuguese.

    There is a simple step Oregon could take to begin to shift more higher ed students to a more cost-effective online option. Tim Nesbitt, advisor to several governors, has suggested offering Oregon financial aid (Opportunity Grants) to students taking online courses at the Western Governors University (here). Oregon just cannot afford to expand the increasingly costly, traditional residential higher ed model to many more students. Online higher ed is a much better investment.

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      Hi Mr. Porter,

      In order to reach the legislativly adopted goal of "40 percent of all adult Oregonians hav[ing] a bachelor's degree or higher, 40 percent hav[ing] earned an associate's degree or post-secondary credential and 20 percent hav[ing] a high school diploma or the equivalent" online education I believe will be incorporated more but not replace traditional, physically present learning. And, I think that is best.

      As far as our discussions about language immersion programs, particularly Mandarin I'll say again that I agree with you there and further, want to thank you for being so passionate about these issues.

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      Colleges and universities are already doing a lot of online courses. Over the past two years I have taken a number of them myself. However, we still need a good number of in-person classes. Some thing needs hands-on activities you can't do at home. Some students just can't learn online - they need everything that comes with being in a classroom with the instructor.

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    For those interested in the topic of higher education, its costs especially, note that the NY Times this weekend published twelve responses to Texas Governor Perry’s proposal to develop a $10,000 BA degree ($2,500 per year) in Texas. I think his idea is feasible. Access the NY Times here. I’ve blogged on it here.

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    It is very difficult to monetize the value of a public education. I am not an economist, but I assume you calculate the present value of the anticpated lifetime income stream of a graduating student and then subtract the public subsidy cost of the education.

    One of my wonderful kids attended a private college and then went on to medical school and now has a teaching position at an Ivy League school. The other wonderful kid attended public school and obtained a batchelor's degree in Archeology and I suspect the only way to get her to stop living in my house is to burn it down.

    So I guess everything is relevent.

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      Thinking that education is primarily (or only) about individual monetary income ignores a lot. I'm sorry you feel put upon personally.

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    Thanks to Tim Young for an excellent post!

    But it does leave one question unanswered for me. What is Nike's responsibility to give back to the educational system that nutured it?

    I am willing to be corrected, but I seem to recall that Phil Knight vehemently opposed Measures 66 and 67, which were the only serious attempt in years to increase the contribution of big corpoartions and wealthy individuals to the common good.

    I am well aware that Mr. Knight contributes generously to the Univerisity of Oregon, and that his huge donations to the athletic program are not the only way he supports Oregon. But to me, the real responsibilty he and other corporate keaders have is to paying their share of the bill for the entire system of education, not fighting tooth and toenail to avoid even the most modest tax increases.

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