February 21, 2008

Higher Ed

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

John F. Kennedy once said that, “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education.” We’d do well to remember those words now, with our national and state economies mired in recession.  In these dark times, education must be the torch that lights our way to a brighter future.

That means redefining our goals regarding education.  Primary, intermediate, and high schools are a beginning, not an end.  While we are right to invest much of our time and efforts in improving our elementary classrooms, we cannot stop there.  A key part of putting Wisconsin back to work means building a workforce with the skills and know-how to compete in an information economy.  Step one in that process is making college accessible and affordable for everyone.

As a State Senator, a Wisconsin resident, and a mother, I’m proud of what our state has done to give all its citizens real opportunities to go to college.  Minority Undergraduate Retention Grants and Lawton Minority Undergraduate Grants have opened our higher education system to people of all races and backgrounds.  Veterans Tuition and Fee Reimbursement Grants and National Guard Tuition Grants ensure that our military men and women are equipped with an education as they transition from military to civilian life.  And Wisconsin Higher Education Grants, Tuition Grants, and Advanced Opportunity Grants help make college tuition affordable for economically disadvantaged families.

But we can do more, particularly to cut the hidden costs of college.  Rising tuition fees grab so many headlines these days that barely anyone notices the skyrocketing costs of textbooks and class supplies.  For many families, already struggling to cover tuition, paying over $1,000 each year for books and manuals is just too much.  The choice they face—between paying the mortgage and financing their kid’s education—is one no parent should be forced to make.

We’ve got a bill circulating in the Legislature right now to reduce the cost of course materials.  It will help colleges and universities around the state in purchasing low-cost textbooks by forcing textbook providers to be more open and honest about pricing for their products.  Professors and universities will have all the information they need to make smart decisions about which materials they’re going to use.  The savings will add up in a hurry, so students from all backgrounds will have a chance to focus on learning, rather than worrying about affording another semester.

We live in a global economy where a college education is increasingly vital to achieving not just American Dream, but also basic existence.  I grew up understanding that the dream belongs to all Americans, not just those who can afford it.  Reducing the hidden costs of college is a step in the right direction.  I pray that none of us will hesitate to speak up on its behalf.  In this new age of global competitiveness, our state’s progress depends on it.