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Editorial: Leverage our assets

As the United States worries that it is losing the global skills race, some states are proposing a no-tuition policy for expanding access to community college.

Oregon is one of those states, where the idea has gained supporters, particularly Sen. Mark Hass, who is leading the effort. Other states have tried and failed.

It’s an intriguing idea, essentially proposing a free K-14 system with two of those years voluntary.

But it comes at a high cost to the public, which would be left footing the bill.

“I think everybody agrees that with a high school education by itself, there is no path to the middle class,” said Hass in justifying his support for free tuition.

So maybe that’s immediate problem that should be dealt with.

Once upon a time, high schoolers not interested in higher education learned vocational skills. Mechanics, woodshop, drafting, electronics, agriculture — a whole host of job-oriented skills were offered at the public school level and students who took these programs and earned a high school diploma could expect to go out into the marketplace prepared for an entry-level position in at least one of these trades.

After the tax limitation measures of the 1990s, many schools were forced to trim their offerings, focusing more on the required academic programs and less on the vocational programs that kept many academically uninterested students learning through the 12th grade. There are still plenty of those students out there, by the way, who could be better served — and would better serve the U.S. economy — if they could emerge from high school with a marketable job skill.

European schools have successfully done it for years: provide general education through age 16 or 17, then shift students into either academic or vocational programs for their last two years.

Despite their financial challenges, high schools in Oregon and other states are already working toward that aim by letting high school students take community college classes for dual credit, acknowledging that the infrastructure they have now just isn’t adequate to marketplace or student needs.

Free community college smacks of conventional thinking: If you have a problem, throw money at it.

As executives in the technology industry have repeatedly said, they are looking less for a piece of paper and more for skills and the ability to think. In a recent story that aired on Oregon Public Broadcasting, one of the pioneers of the industry predicted that we are entering the era of disruption in education — when education finally is able to effectively use the new technologies at its disposal.

We’re seeing it already in programs like EdX, which offers free technical, academic, business and vocational courses from prestigious universities, including Harvard, MIT and others. Universities are also posting similar programs on iTunesU, including an entire course on journalism.

The Dalles High School is working on its own disruptive methods with the Wahtonka Community School, which aims to work closely with local businesses to teach students vocational skills.

The bottom line is, we already have a free, public education system. Instead of discounting its value as a skills provider, as Sen. Hass has, we should be looking at ways to leverage the assets we already have and make them work better to meet the needs of both the students and the economy.

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