Can a college degree be a badge of honor, too?

December 04, 2005|By Bob Maginnis

When I was a young man, many years ago, I remember going to various Hagerstown water holes in hopes of meeting a compatible person of the female persuasion.

That didn't work out well, most of the time, first because I wasn't from Washington County originally and didn't have ties to the community through relatives and high school classmates. And pre-Woodward and Bernstein, newspapering hadn't acquired whatever status it has now.

I got so little respect that young women would sit in groups within earshot and talk about the "cute guys" they knew. In many cases, the clincher in their descriptions was "and he works at Mack Trucks."

I thought about those times this week when the Hagerstown/Washington County Industrial Foundation (CHIEF) delivered the county's first Community Report Card on Thursday.


It is an accumulation of statistics on education, public safety and community health, among other things.

What does that have to do with my long-ago bachelor days? Bear with me and I'll explain.

In the 30-some years I've been working here, the local economy has changed. With few exceptions, it is impossible to walk into a place such as Mack Trucks with no training, learn your job in the plant and be virtually guaranteed a job - though perhaps with some layoffs -until retirement.

Fairchild Aircraft closed, Mack has been downsized and what used to be Byron Tannery in Williamsport has moved much of its operation to Mexico, where labor is much cheaper.

There are signs that the many people entering the workplace are getting the message that if they want to do any better than $10 an hour, they need some college or some advanced training.

What I don't see yet - and I will admit that I am not in close touch with many young working people - is the same widespread admiration I saw for Mack workers in the 1970s being given to those who go to college today.

It is something this community needs to cultivate and I would welcome readers' ideas on how that can be done.

The object of such a campaign would not be to suggest that those who didn't do that are somehow inferior. I have met too many World War II veterans who signed up for battle when they were only teens, spending the time they might have spent on campus fighting for the freedoms I enjoy today.

But the world has changed and with it the economy. Local people are already being priced out of the housing market in part because salaries here haven't kept pace with those in the metropolitan areas to the east.

The Community Report Card was issued to give the area a benchmark, a target to beat next year or the year after. It is not a blueprint for what needs to be done to improve, but a series of mile markers, if you will, to show us how far we have or haven't come.

A few highlights, or lowlights, depending on your point of view, include:

In the section on demographics, it is noted that 15 percent of the families in Hagerstown have incomes below the federal poverty level. That's twice the county's 7 percent rate.

In his book "Cities Without Suburbs," David Rusk, former mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., looks at a ton of research and concludes that when there are such disparities between cities and the counties that surround them, economic development in both areas suffers.

One way to counter this would be to encourage more city residents to attend Hagerstown Community College (HCC) and the University System of Maryland downtown campus. It will take financial aid to make that happen, but the last U.S. Census showed that only 14.3 percent of county residents aged 25 to 24 have four-year degrees.

Other sections, using data that stretches into 2004, provide more hope, showing that more local high school graduates are attending HCC and getting certificates and degrees.

Why should you care, especially if your own children are well-educated?

Because as the Washington County School System's Minority Achievement Task Force noted, every child that doesn't achieve educationally becomes an expense for the community and part of the statistics that employers consider when they're looking to relocate or expand.

The community also needs to embrace the campaign to cut the number of teen births here, which went from 25.3 per 1,000 in the years between 2001 and 2003 to 48.6 in 2004.

The report card notes that the higher teen birth rate increases the number of low-birth-rate babies. Because most of these young mothers are below the poverty line, their care will likely be uncompensated, increasing everyone else's costs.

Their children are more likely to be abused, to need special services in school and to run afoul of the juvenile justice. As I said previously, even if those things don't tug at your heart strings, it's certain that they affect everyone from the taxes you pay to the quality of life in this community.

Convincing the next generation that education needs to be valued will take years of work, just as it took years for people to realize that the old days of learning the job on the factory floor are over.

It's a job this community can't fail to take on, unless it wants the next generation to settle for $10-an-hour jobs and a community sharply divided between those who have good jobs and those who need a lot of community-funded social services to survive.

The report card, which CHIEF has promised to issue every year from now on, will provide one measure of how well such a campaign succeeds.

The other will be when some young man overhears a woman talking about a desirable partner and the fact that he's got a degree from the University System of Maryland.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor on The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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