My dad, who grew up on a southeast Nebraska farm and finished high school in the midst of the Great Depression, was like most men of his era: Taciturn, hard-working, unlikely to betray much emotion unless the Huskers fumbled or a big catfish snapped his line. So it is an indelible memory for me that as we drove home after signing financial aid papers for my freshman year, making it official I’d go to college, he looked at me and teared up a bit and said, “Randy, I’m tickled pink.”
We were poor. Dad worked long hours as an artificial inseminator of cattle, many times seven days a week. Getting enough scholarships, grants and loans to be the first in the family to be a college student was a big, big deal.
When news broke Friday that my alma mater, the University of Nebraska, would offer free tuition to students from families whose income is at or below the state median, I couldn’t help thinking of that moment with my dad and what this means for other hard-working Nebraska families.
I am overjoyed for them and proud of my school and home state.
College isn’t for everybody, and in some ways has been oversold as a one-size-fits-all path to success. While a college degree on average means at least $650,000 more in lifetime earnings over a high school diploma, many of today’s graduates end up with crushing debt and without a clear career path.
Nor should college be free for all — students need skin in the game and must have a reason to be there.
The Nebraska Promise program announced Friday, which expands free tuition that already was available to students eligible for Pell grants, requires that students take at least 12 credit hours per semester and maintain a 2.5 grade point average. The program will cover up to 30 credit hours per academic year and won’t cover costs for fees, books or room and board.
It does not require additional taxpayer support or raise tuition for other students — new NU President Ted Carter said the university will reallocate money to pay for it.
It could relieve these young people, many of whom will be first-generation college students, of needing to work as much, giving them more time to study and assimilate and increasing their chances of success. A third of first-generation college students drop out after three years, compared with 14% of their peers.
The Nebraska Promise is a foothold in an increasingly tough climb for young people to get a start in adulthood.
Public schools, from kindergarten through post-graduate study, are incubators of hope and imagination. They lift people from poverty and raise everyone to new heights. They remain the greatest social (and socialization) program ever created in the world.
They improve Nebraska’s crops and cities, enrich our entertainment and fuel our state’s pride. They even allowed a hick kid from Beatrice to meet presidential candidates and auto company CEOs and enjoy a seminar in the richness of America before becoming the editor of the 135-year-old Omaha World-Herald, the largest media operation in his home state. I don’t know that my dad would have imagined the promise was that great.
— Randy Essex, executive editor