for every child

Back many years ago when I graduated from high school, my father made me a promise that changed my life and we should make the same promise to all of our children in South Carolina.

As a callow youth with my brand spanking new diploma in hand, I was simply excited about graduating and looking forward to celebrating with my friends. But before things got too far out of hand, my father pulled me aside, looked me straight in the eye and made me a serious and solemn promise. “As long as I’m financially able,” he said, “I will pay for all of the college and graduate education you need to help you fulfill your life’s dreams.”

At the time, I heard what he said but it did not really sink in – I was looking for the graduation party. With the perspective of 45 years, I realize that this was about the most wonderful promise that any parent could make to their child. And I am very thankful that I have been able to make the same promise to my children.

And, though my father raised his family on a modest preacher’s salary, somehow he figured out how to make it all work and he kept this promise to me. I graduated from college and was even able to go to graduate school in Europe and finished with no personal debt. Yes, there were some scholarships, I did odd jobs while in school and I was supported by a federal work study program, but unlike many young people today who leave schools with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, I finished debt free.

What an amazing gift it was – a gift every child in South Carolina should have.

Is this crazy? No, it is not. Would it be hard to do? Absolutely. Would it be worth the effort? What are the dreams of our children worth?

Photo of the occupation of the clock tower at New York City's historic Cooper Union college to protest the imposition of fees for the first time in the free school's 150-year history approached its second week with a rally on December 8. Students are demanding that the college, founded to provide quality education to working class and low income scholars, remain free and that the school president resign - by Michael Fleshman via Flickr

All across the country today there is a recognition that we have fallen behind in providing affordable higher education to our young people and we desperately need to do something to fix it. For years the US was recognized as the best educated country in the word; recently, we have slipped to the middle of the pack of industrialized countries.

There are literally dozens and dozens of innovative ideas and strategies being tried to help fix higher education in the country. Here are just a few that we should seriously consider for South Carolina:

  • Free community college – This idea was recently launched by President Obama and his administration is now developing a specific proposal that will soon be before Congress. (I’m willing to bet that most, if not all, of SC’s six Republican congressmen will oppose this.)
  • College for All – A new initiative of the Center for American Progress goes President Obama one better. They propose that high school graduates should be able to attend two or four years of college without having to pay any tuition or fees while they are enrolled, with the cost to be repaid upon graduation based on a percentage of their salary earned.
  • Tuition supplements for technical school – Laurens County recently implemented a policy that they will pay whatever tuition supplements are needed to enable any and all of their students graduating from high school to complete two years of technical school. I don’t know of any other county that has followed their bold lead.
  • Community service credits – With this proposal, students are provided full or partial debt forgiveness or tuition refunds if they take community services jobs upon graduation – jobs such as teaching in rural districts, working with non-profit agencies, taking hard to fill health care positions, etc.
  • Freshman year credit for online courses – Arizona State University has just begun a program where students can enroll in a full year of courses online for free and only pay a reduced tuition charge when they successfully complete the courses and are ready to start their regular sophomore year.
  • Corporate education partnerships – Arizona State University has also partnered with Starbucks and provides free online college credit course to all of Starbucks’ employees. In total, ASU has 13,000 online students pursuing 70 degrees.
  • Income based payment plans – Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley (who will probably announce for President next month) has long supported a plan whereby students repay their college loans based on their income after graduation. As students begin their careers and as their earnings increase, the college debts are repaid based on their increasing ability to pay.
  • Three year colleges – Advance placement courses that give high school students college credits for advanced courses have been around for a while. What’s new is that in some high schools, students can earn up to a full year of college credit for courses taken in high school and the summer before college – thus they are able to reduce the cost of college by as much as 25%, or a full year’s tuition.

These are just a few ideas that are being tried all across the country. Unfortunately, we are not hearing much about these or other innovative ideas here in South Carolina. It seems our folks in higher education, and the politicians that ultimately make the rules, are stuck in the same old mindset of just thinking about tuition increases and socking out of state students with higher tuition and fees.

This kind of stale thinking is what got us in the bad position we are in today. You’d think that folks in higher education – the place where supposedly smart people are employed by the thousands with safe, high paying, tenured positions – could come up with some new ideas.

Maybe we should put my dad in charge.

Editor's Note: This story originally appeared at the SC News Exchange.
Phil Noble

Phil Noble

Phil Noble is a businessman from Charleston and he currently serves as President of the South Carolina New Democrats, an independent reform group started by former Gov. Richard Riley. Noble is one of the leading experts in the US and internationally on the Internet and politics. Noble is the founder of PoliticsOnline and its affiliated company Phil Noble & Associates, an international public affairs consulting firm. Noble is a veteran of over 300 political campaigns and public affairs projects in 40 states and 30 countries. He has worked to elect the head of state in 15 countries.