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home : opinions : opinions
February 17, 2019

The Publisher's Pen
By Jason Sturek

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to cuts to higher education

If you attended Wayne State College, raise your hand. (That was rhetorical, you can put your hands down!)

I’m going to make an educated guess that there are a lot of people reading this who attended WSC. Or another state college in Nebraska. Or had a child, sibling, parent or grandparent who did. The impact of a state college in a rural part of Nebraska can’t be understated, nor do I think it can even be accurately measured.

Some 5-percent of WSC’s undergraduate population, on average, comes from Dakota and Thurston Counties. Many of us who attended were born in this area or spent parts of our careers here. I have lived in several communities, always within about 75 miles of Wayne, and there’s no question in my mind that staying here was a very direct result of the education I received in this area and job opportunities that presented themselves with connections to the college via advisors and proximity.

None of that was planned by me, but none of it was an accident, either.

I attended WSC from the fall of 1997 to the winter of 2001. As it is for most people, those years were a magical time of triumphs, mistakes, creating and cementing lifelong relationships, living alone for the first time — oh, and learning.

When you spend a portion of your life somewhere special, it becomes an inseparable part of your story and much more than a few stitches in the fabric of your life.

The state’s projected budget shortfall means that government programs, services and institutions will have to be impacted. There’s a pragmatic side of governing that requires cuts be made. Wayne State College — and the state college system in Nebraska that also includes Chadron State and Peru State — are in the bullseye of that right now.

The state college system was impacted in the last legislative session with cuts and more might follow with further reductions to the 2017-19 budget. A current proposal calls for a 2-percent midyear cut to WSC, with another 4-percent reduction the following year.

One of the most difficult things legislators must sort out is what the net result of their cuts are actually going to be, and that requires looking down the road a ways. If we’re going to shave a few million dollars at the expense of tens of millions in economic ripples and what I’ll just call “brain retention” in our neighborhoods, that’s not being pragmatic at all. It’s shortsighted and fits into the old adage of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” For what reason do we invest in anything at all if not to create the very experiences and results WSC exists for?

Wayne State claims their economic impact to be more than $158 million per year in this corner of the state. Those of us who raised our hands at the start of this column might want to pick up a phone or write a letter to a state representative or the governor’s office. Cutting a state college that is traditionally a great value for students in terms of cost per credit can have some ramifications far beyond just one tight budget cycle.

When we begin to make decisions that could serve to swell tuition rates or affect the quality of the education offered, we’re impacting the future of this area in ways we should not be rash about.

More than 40 percent of Wayne State attendees are first-generation students, according to data provided by the college. A similar number are Pell eligible, which means they are at the low to moderate income level at home. Changes in cost to attend very quickly can impact these potential students. We need as many of these young people — and non-traditional career-changing adults, as well — to become leaders in an emerging, modern Nebraska economy rather than to miss that opportunity and take others, such as leaving the area for other opportunities or becoming less productive members of this region. Dollars spent on education reduce the need to spend on other parts of future budgets, such as those related to unemployment and criminal justice.

Every government service exists to serve an important purpose, and there are adverse effects on society whenever this is necessary. Let’s pause to question, however, if we want to focus cuts when growth of both economic and personal natures is the eventual reward.

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