A fiscal responsibility

By Nick Milano

The kid with the guitar case looked at his girlfriend uncomfortably. The two smiled at each other then he continued answering some random guy’s question about his guitar with one word answers. The excitable fellow music guru, enthralled by the conversation, excitedly got up and moved down the train car to get closer. His outdated jacket, shabby jeans and unkempt hair suggested what he soon admitted. As I, a friend and the others on the train eavesdropped, he apologized for having a friendly conversation with a stranger – the ultimate sin when riding the MBTA. Blaming his outgoing nature on the fact that he was high, he delved into a commentary of the guitars he had owned, then lost due to his enjoyment of opiates.

Through all the conversation the five of us had, a variety of topics came up. His favorite guitar, how he built his own guitar, his separation from his wife and daughters and his time spent living in West Cork, a county in Southern Ireland. No story, no matter how tragic from his efforts to get off drugs stood out in my memory more than a passing mention of the education he was given by the Irish government. This man was paid a monthly stipend to attend a trade school to prepare him for work in carpentry. It was enough to pay for his rent each month.

The Irish government felt it was not doing enough by giving its citizens a free education from the primary school through college; it pays residents to learn a trade in preparation to enter the workforce. This guy was not having school paid for by his employer as many firms in the United States will pay for employees to further their education, but the government was investing in his training – even though he was not a citizen, merely married to one.

It is in stark contrast to this country where not only does college cost tens of thousands of dollars, but there are also private high schools whose costs can run over the price of an undergraduate degree. The more costs rise, the more money parents must set aside for a college education. It seems to me, a public health major without any real practice in economics, that this runs contrary to what a healthy economy desires.

One of the greatest growths the United States economy has ever seen was after World War II when millions of American G.I.’s came home to a free college education. Instead of the disaster of having millions of unskilled workers entering the workforce, millions of skilled workers emerged after time in four year universities and trade schools.

With parents saving their money for years in preparation for college and with millions of graduates leaving college knee and waist deep in loans, fewer and fewer people have to be spending money. It seems for the economy to stay strong that money must be spent. This is the reason President Bush is mailing out $600 checks to millions of Americans, hoping that they will spend the money, not use it to pay off debt.

But does this not point to the larger trend that as college costs continue to put the squeeze on middle class Americans fewer money is flowing into the economy, but more is flowing into banks for savings and credit companies to pay off loans?

Some people are trying to change this. Now that Governor Patrick has finally been defeated on his casino quick fix for Massachusetts, he still has good ideas in the bank. He has floated the idea of making education free for all Massachusetts residents from kindergarten through community college, but no definite proposals to that effect have yet emerged. With the economy struggling and with Massachusetts already facing a $1.3 billion shortfall in next year’s budget, there is not the money to fully implement such an idea, but if things turn themselves around, it should certainly be debated.

The anonymous guy from the Orange Line ride into Downtown Boston has lived a hard life since his divorce, but he glowed about the way the Irish looked after its citizens. The government invested in the public by offering a free and high quality education from the youngest ages through higher education.

The United States boasts the greatest collection of colleges in the world from the Ivies like Harvard even to the public institutions like the University of Massachusetts Amherst, but their benefits are lessened when most undergraduates must exit with $20,000 in student loans. A college education should not make one’s standing worse, but boost them into a life of getting married and raising their own family.

Nick Milano writes on Thursdays. He can be reached at [email protected]