Having watched last week's State of the Union address, I walked away with far more questions than I had answers.
To be fair, I watched the speech with an open mind, taking notes of the president's initiatives and the path he wanted to chart in the final two years of his term. But as I reviewed my notes afterward, I couldn't help but wonder why a lot of these ideas came up now versus a few years back when they could've been really useful.
The president's education initiative really left me puzzled. He wants to provide free education for those attending two-year colleges and universities. During his speech, he emphasized that two out of every three jobs in America within the next 10 years will require a post-high school education, and this plan would help meet that demand.
Having dealt personally with today's high-tech society, I can understand that perspective. After all, it seems that I can't even change the spark plugs on my vehicle unless I have a degree in mechanical engineering (trying to hook up my family's computer to WiFi apparently requires graduate-level training).
But suddenly making college "free" seems like a huge slap in the face to the millions of Americans out there that scrimped and saved every dollar to work their way through college. Many of them will spend years, possibly decades, paying off the student loans they racked up to earn that degree.
The idea that there was actually a job waiting for them after college was a bonus in some cases.
How many of these current college graduates are still looking for work or ended up working somewhere that has nothing to do with their degree because it was the only job they could find?
Just look at the struggles of college-bound students in Mountain Home. I've seen a few head off to college right after graduation from high school only to watch them end up moving back with their parents, saddled with thousands of dollars in student loan debt and no good-paying job to help them pay off those loans.
So I have to question the motive behind the plan. Why did the president wait until now to launch this education initiative? Why didn't this happen early in the recession when Americans were out of work?
Providing college courses for unemployed Americans back then could've been the perfect way to give these middle Americans the tools they need now to find new and possibly better-paying jobs as the economy shows signs of picking itself back up.
Then there's the bigger question -- who foots the bill? While I'm guessing there's still a lot of debate yet to come, it seems clear at this point that taxpayers will ultimately pay for this "free" education.
During the president's speech, I had to chuckle when he mentioned that students in this country already receive free high school education. Well, the last I checked, that was far from the truth.
In fact, I have a receipt on my refrigerator that shows all the fees I ended up paying so my daughter, who graduates this May, could complete all of her core classes. I shudder to think how much more that bill would've been if she had decided to take some more elective classes or, God forbid, had gotten into athletics.
So much for "free" education.
I understand and appreciate that the president's college plan has some strings attached -- people will need to maintain good grades and finish their degrees within a set timeline.
However, what program or policy will ensure that students using these free program actually follow through on that promise? If someone suddenly decides to let their grades slide, will someone out there make them pay back their college fees?
And will these future students have jobs waiting for them once they graduate, and how much will they actually earn?
I really wish I knew.
Maybe we're looking at the education situation all wrong. Instead of focusing so much attention on having kids go to college, maybe we should spend more time making sure they're ready.
Having put three of my own children through school, I've seen firsthand the challenges they faced as well as a few shortfalls along the way.
It seems that school spends a great deal of time getting the students to graduation, and our district has done the best it can to help its students reach that point.
But then the nagging question remains: Now what?
That's a question that still nags me today. When I went to high school many years ago, I struggled to make it through school. I lacked direction and focus, and I ended up taking classes that seemed "fun" but didn't really prepare me for life after high school.
While I hate "throwing people under the bus," I have to put some blame on those that were hired by the school district to help me for that next stage in my life. My guidance counselor did absolutely *nothing* to help me prepare for life after high school. In four years, he never once called me down to his office for a little one-on-one chat to see if I even had a plan.
Instead, I ended up looking into the mirror three months before graduation realizing I had no scholarships, no grants and no plans. However, I do give a tremendous amount of credit to the U.S. Air Force, who not only gave me some answers but offered me a career that provided good wages and the opportunities to reach my full potential.
I wonder how many others out there have dealt with the same situation I faced but never found a way to move forward.
Maybe that's what needs to happen in this case. Instead of opening the flood gates and telling people they can go to college for free, we really need to start off by focusing more on giving people the tools they need to succeed in life and pointing them in that direction. After all, many people choose other career paths that don't put them in a college classroom. Instead of being a doctor or lawyer, some folks want to fix cars for a living or build the houses we live in or fix the roads we drive over every day.
Ultimately, what our elected officials need to keep in mind is understanding what most Americans really want and, more to the point, what they need. The laws they approve should then help meet those basic necessities.
Americans want to make an honest living, making decent wages so they can put a roof over the heads with a car in the garage. They want enough money left over to put food on the table with enough amenities that their families can live comfortably.
People in this country want to walk down the streets of their cities without fearing for their safety. They want to breathe clean air and know that the hamburger they're about to eat isn't tainted with some horrible disease.
Parents raise their children in hopes they receive the best education possible, armed with the tools needed to go on to pursue their own careers and dreams.
Simply put, most of us want to enjoy life to the fullest so we can make this country better for our children and our children's children.
Once our elected officials figure that out and react accordingly, then perhaps all the other problems we deal with every day won't seem so bad.
-- Brian S. Orban