ASHLAND — With an average of $26,000 in debt on graduation, Oregon's higher education system is not working — however, it and many systems in our society are in transformation and we're going to have to live for a time with the old and the new, side-by-side.
That's the take on university education by Oregon's first lady, Cylvia Hayes, as she spoke Thursday before Ashland's American Association of University Women at their Scholarship & Honors Award Ceremony.
The partner of Gov. John Kitzhaber said, "The old system is not working because bad people put it in place. Most systems were rational when they started, but so much has changed, including our demographics. We need to evolve a new system. The Great Recession made that very clear to us."
Pointing to recent news that student debt now exceeds credit card debt nationally, Hayes noted that what made America great in the mid- and late-20th century was the GI Bill and the relative ease and affordability of higher education — things that are gone now.
This fall, Kitzhaber will draft a comprehensive prosperity plan, Hayes said, that will engage the "crisis of poverty" and its roots in the breakdown of the education, energy and health care systems.
Goals, she said, include making higher education affordable for all, growing jobs and eliminating the income gap for women. Hayes grew up in extreme poverty in rural Washington state and was able to get higher education, she notes, only because of scholarships such as the ones the AAUW was awarding Thursday.
"It gave me self-confidence and taught me how to learn" leading to a master's degree in environmental studies from Evergreen State College in 1995.
"John (the governor) and I talk about this all the time," she said, in an interview. "What made us a great nation was the GI Bill. We've slipped significantly. If I came out of college with the present average debt, $26,000, I would still be in debt."
To remedy the student debt crisis, the governor is looking at better early childhood education and ways to pay down the first two years of college, she said.
"I have high hopes for overall education reform," she notes.
"All our systems are in transformation now. The trouble is that the new system has to live with the old system. There is a lot of unease and tumult, as the old system is not working, as a state, nation and as a species. If the organization doesn't respond to change, it reaches the point of diminishing returns."
AAUW co-presidents Sunny Anderson and Kathy Brandon also noted the state of higher education.
"We've got to get women out of poverty through an emphasis on education," said Anderson. "What a difference it can make."
"We need to do something about college debt," said Brandon. "It's such a burden to start life with that. It's hard enough to look for a job and balance the budget."