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Business Casual: Students, Not Widgets

 

If you’re making a list of higher education superfans, please put my name on there – at the very top. And if you’re making a list of people in favor of college students graduating, my name should be on that one, too.

However, offered the chance to be on a list of those who think the only goal of colleges and universities should be to turn out graduates with degrees in certain “job-ready” categories, I might have to decline.

It’s not that job-readiness isn’t important – it is. But suppose we aim a little higher: How about colleges and universities that turn out educated individuals whose minds have been opened and stretched and are prepared to keep learning? That does not eliminate them from being ready to go to work upon graduation but actually prepares them for a lifetime of jobs and careers and changing circumstances.

Budget cuts are a reality – in higher education as in practically every other arena. Fiscal accountability and cost-cutting are facts of academic life. But we are dealing with students, not widgets. People, not just statistics.

Georgia’s university system has lost $540 million in state funding since FY 2009. The technical college system lost $19 million from FY 2011 to FY 2012. The HOPE scholarship has been reduced – it no longer offers full tuition rides for the state’s best and brightest students to keep them instate.

That makes it more difficult for students seeking education and for their families.

The Governor and University System Chancellor have embarked on a push for higher graduation rates – the Complete College Georgia Initiative, with the goal of adding 250,000 postsecondary graduates by 2020 to “keep Georgia competitive in an age where other states and countries are producing a more educated workforce,” according to a press release from the Governor’s office. The plan also seeks to ensure “the academic quality and standards to which graduates and institutions are held” and provide the opportunity to pursue higher education and support students’ success throughout the entire process.

These are indisputably admirable goals – with immeasurable benefits, not just to the young people receiving the education but to all the rest of us who have a vested interest in a better-educated population. It doesn’t even matter whether that interest is motivated by a desire to see each student develop his or her potential as a way to a life of purpose and fulfillment or whether it has to do with the very real economic benefits that education brings to a state. Or both.

There is a value to higher education that simply can’t be quantified. It has to do with nurturing minds and giving students not only the skills to earn a living – but to go beyond that and aspire to more in terms of making themselves and their families a better life, to be prepared for more than just that first job.

Education is not solely a matter of balance sheets and number crunching. Colleges and universities should turn out well-educated individuals, not well-crafted widgets.

As teary-eyed as I get watching students in caps and gowns marching out of auditoriums and off football fields with diplomas in their hands, I don’t think someone who spends two or three semesters in college then drops out, for whatever reason, should be considered a failure.

That individual has made a good start on an education. He or she might return a year or two later to finish. And even if that doesn’t happen, the student has been exposed to higher education – embraced some new ideas, thought about some things he hadn’t thought about before. And that “drop-out” has started a family trend. Odds are, his or her children will go on to college – and finish.

In my book, that’s success, not failure.

Both of my parents represented the first generation in their families to attend college. Neither graduated: My dad went off to fight in World War II; my mom went to work. I was raised with the certainty that I would go to college, which I did, and that I would graduate – which I did. It was simply something that wasn’t questioned.

It’s exciting to see a push for higher education and a realization on the part of our leaders that it is an investment, not just an expense.

I hope their efforts will keep the human factor front and center and that individuals won’t get lost amid the number crunching.

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