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Sun., Feb. 16, 2014

Talk is cheap; college isn’t

College costs a lot of money. So does skipping it. So what’s a person to do?

Lately, the answer is: Take out enormous loans and hope to heck somebody will hire you. Just don’t wait for a bailout, because college debt is the most merciless kind. Whether through bankruptcy law or direct government intervention, the roll call of forgiveness is quite revealing: Wall Street, automakers, banks, farms, gamblers, shopaholics – here’s a reprieve. Students? Not so fast.

We say we value education. We plead with people to partake. And then we look the other way when they’re forced to don a financial straitjacket that may squeeze them for decades. Politicians have heard all of this, but most react like Scarlett O’Hara: “I’ll think about it tomorrow.”

On the other hand, there are those who do give a damn and have backed it up with a call for free community college tuition.

In his State of the State speech, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam proposed the freebie for all residents with a high school diploma. To pay for it, he would divert money from the state’s lottery. Under a community college bill in the Mississippi Legislature, the state would pick up the difference between the cost of tuition and whatever financial aid a student procured. An Oregon bill would compel the state to study the possibility of free community college.

Two things are behind this trend: Crushing college debt and the reality that the K-12 education model was suited for a bygone era (as are summers off; sorry, kids).

A recent Pew Research report underscores why a K-14 system would be smarter. For so-called millennials (25 to 32 years old), the pay gap between those with a four-year degree and those with a high school diploma has never been wider. That’s partly because the pay for blue collar workers has plunged. Most people really do need a post-secondary education to land a good-paying job these days, but access has never been more challenging.

The state of Washington once paid 70 percent of college costs. Now students pay that percentage. The average debt-laden University of Washington student graduates owing $20,000. Furthermore, UW President Michael Young recently said the competition to be admitted is so high that the average in-state freshman has a 3.8 GPA.

For most people, then, access denied.

Free community college would not only produce more people with associate’s degrees and technical certifications, it could cut the cost of a four-year diploma in half. Plus, it could widen access to universities that can be difficult to get into right out of high school.

Now, I’m sure there are myriad reasons why we couldn’t enact a free K-14 system right away, but the beauty of even floating the idea is that it forces education cheerleaders to put down the pompoms and get in the game.

Discriminating. Judging from my indifference to high-priced food and beverages, I must have low-functioning taste buds. Don’t weep for me; I figure this shortcoming has saved me a fortune over the years.

This hit home the other day when I was reading about the price differences for hard liquor in Washington and Idaho. The article used the example of a bottle of Patron Tequila, which is $18 higher in Washington. I’m not sure I’ve ever paid $18 for a bottle of anything, so here’s how I view it:

If I don’t drive to Idaho to buy a bottle of Patron, I’ve saved the gas money and $52. If I don’t buy it closer to home, I’ve saved $70. I’m happy with the larger savings, because I’m off the hook for financing whatever government service those higher liquor taxes procure.

So, please, buy locally, and don’t forget to get the good stuff.

Associate Editor Gary Crooks can be reached at or (509) 459-5026. Follow him on Twitter @GaryCrooks.

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