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John Florez: Is college only for a select few?

Published: Saturday, July 13 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

"We need to value our children as much as we value our businesses. They are 33 percent of our population and 100 percent of our future," (Terry Haven, Voices for Utah Children). Our elected leaders take pride in having Forbes magazine name Utah No. 1 for business, Haven notes, and yet they settle for less when it comes to kids.

Several years ago, Bill Brock, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and chair of the Skills Commission, a national organization committed to improving education and the workforce, came to town. As he spoke with some members of the Salt Lake Chamber, one business executive said it was easier to get people excited about improving access to health care, because everyone is affected by it; yet, not everyone is excited about improving access to education because many of us already have easy access to it.

And that's the challenge our students have in obtaining a higher education. At a time when higher knowledge and skills are needed to succeed in today's economy, college tuition is becoming out of reach for many students. Because of that we may be losing precious and creative talent needed for our future workforce.

Our governor and legislators have made business development a priority and have enacted policies to support them — recruited and attracted businesses in creative ways, such as tax credits and grants. They see it as an investment in our future with a good return on that investment. While our leaders acknowledge the need for a more educated workforce, they have not yet seen the wisdom in making a similar investment in college education for our children. They are the greatest natural resource we have, and they're just waiting to be cultivated. Utah, like many states, has a problem with students completing college. Utah ranks 40 among states in college completion rates. In the meantime, college tuition has gone up dramatically, making higher education out of reach for more and more high school graduates.

Education in America has always given people the opportunity to achieve their goals. It was a ticket to the middle class. With the way education is structured and costs ballooning, it is becoming less accessible to more and more and leading to the development of a divided society based on income. Now, according to Nobel Prize winner Joseph E. Stiglitz, 1 percent of the population now controls 40 percent of America's total wealth; 25 years ago it was 12 percent and 33 percent respectively, thus he says, it is harder to "generate collective action." The more divided a society by income, the less likely the wealthy will be willing to pay for public goods and common needs. The chamber executive had it right.

Our leaders ought to make the same investment in the education of our students as they have with business, provide tax credits and grants to students. This would help students get a college education and greatly increase Utah's capacity to succeed in today's global economy.

The idea is not new. After WWII, our soldiers came home and went to college with the help of the GI bill to pay for it. America made an investment in our veterans and got more than a return on its investment. They went on to make America the leader of the industrial world. It was a generation that simply saw it as their duty — to sacrifice, work for the common good and loyalty to country. That's why they're called the "greatest generation."

We need to value and invest in our children today. They can be the next greatest generation.

A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education. Email him at jdflorez@comcast.net.

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