Guest Commentary | Parkland prioritizing prudence

Guest Commentary | Parkland prioritizing prudence

By TOM RAMAGE

As we embark on another academic year, I am reminded of the reciprocal relationship that exists between the community and its community college.

The District 505 community's investment in Parkland College in the 1960s opened a wide door of opportunity for all residents to invest in a brighter future. You can now get your start at Parkland and go anywhere, including the University of Illinois, where significant numbers of our students choose to transfer.

Throughout the years, you have trusted Parkland's leadership to make prudent financial decisions in the interest of our college, community and students. In turn, our students, who spend hard-earned dollars attending classes, make prudent financial decisions based on value and potential.

It is with students in mind that, for the first time in 26 years, we have decided to hold our tuition flat. We believe this small gesture will make a big difference long-term, especially as student-loan payments become due.

Also this summer, our board of trustees passed a proposal to refinance the construction bonds that built our new student union and upgraded our physical plant. The refinancing will result in a taxpayer savings of about $5.4 million, 1.8 percent of the college's tax burden. It means no new dollars for the college but constitutes an effort on our end to put money back in the taxpayer's pocket.

Before refinancing begins, however, we will need to expend the bond funds and interest we still control over the next couple of years. Because our projects came in under budget, these remaining dollars will stretch even further, helping us maintain and expand programs with great potential. All together, we are looking at a new $3.5 million investment in programs, technology and infrastructure, one that will not come from our general or operational funds:

— We have earmarked approximately $300,000 of these funds to replace aging flight simulators that are used heavily by students in our aviation courses. The Institute of Aviation has become a full-fledged department at Parkland College, with strong enrollment and a waiting list of interested students.

— We will also remodel an existing space into a high-fidelity simulation lab, building four new simulation bays and a simulated ambulance for our Health Professions programs. The lab will include a nurse's station, a second iStan simulator, CPR manikins and more. All of this translates to hands-on experience for students.

— Perhaps our most exciting expenditure will occur in precision agriculture: a $1 million investment toward developing the Midwest Center for Precision Agriculture at Parkland College. On the heels of a successful National Science Foundation grant, a second closely related NSF grant and great potential for a third, we have made the decision to expand. Our connections with industry partners shows us there is great potential to provide increased support to both our local agriculture community and to a multistate region, the way our Diesel Power, Ford Asset and Aviation programs already do. What an exciting leadership opportunity for us.

While our investments this year involve dollars and cents, the true nature of these investments contradicts a growing sentiment that has been bothering me, one encapsulated in a recent Washington Post article, "Is College worth it? One professor says no."

The article discusses Dr. Brian Caplan, a professor at George Mason University, and his book, "The Case against Education." Caplan argues that Americans waste money on higher education. He figures that, at most, only 20 percent of the wage premium the average baccalaureate holder earns can be explained by actual learning and skill development from college; at least 50 percent results from the talent, knowledge and discipline students already possessed when they arrived for freshman orientation. For the typical student, he writes, a year in college "neither raises their productivity nor enriches their lives."

Well, that's a little hard to hear, isn't it? Boiling all that we do into a simple transaction. Unfortunately, results from this line of thinking are destructive. It tempts you to categorize a college education as something other than an investment in the most valuable of all instruments: yourself.

The question we should be asking is not, "What will students become with a Parkland education?" but rather, "Who will they become?" An education, wholeheartedly pursued, is truly transformational — improving lives, changing trajectories and shaping the future of our community.

So, as our academic year begins, let us reframe our collective thinking from transactional to transformational. That is our value.

It's going to be another great year at Parkland College.

Tom Ramage is the president of Parkland College in Champaign.