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Lawmakers Weigh in on the College Debate

State legislators are one of the most educated groups of citizens in the United States. However, some of them do not hold a college degree. In fact, legislators' opinions on the importance of a college degree differ widely. Some believe that it's essential and critical to moving up in society, while others are less upbeat about its relevance, especially to specific fields.

By Bobby Mann

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Does a College Degree Matter?

At 19, Kyle Jones was elected as a representative in New Hampshire and is one of the youngest in the state's history. Largely home-schooled, Mr. Jones became interested in politics after attending a candidate training class with his mother. Laura Jones was preparing to campaign for a seat in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, which she won. Unsurprisingly, college isn't a priority for Mr. Jones. He currently splits his time between legislative duties and managing late night shifts at a local Burger King. He does, however, admit that a college education can lead to a better job.

Utah Senator Daniel W. Thatcher sits on the state's Senate Education Committee but does not hold a degree. Additionally, he does not believe that a degree is a prerequisite for success in life. Sen. Thatcher's reason is based upon his experience as a former electrical contractor. At a very young age he became interested in electronics and used to visit his local library to learn as much as he could about circuit boards. He dropped out of college after becoming disillusioned with courses that had little to do with his area of interest. Sen. Thatcher is currently proposing budget cuts for higher education in Utah.

The Importance of a College Education

For other legislators, though, higher education looms large on the agenda. Pam Roach is a representative in the 31st Senate District in the state of Washington. She is a Republican and is the first in her family to attend college. As a self-described member of the middle class, Ms. Roach understands the importance of keeping higher education costs low. When tuition costs rise, richer families can cope and poorer students benefit from grants and other forms of assistance. Middle-class families, she argues, are left with no way to deal with the increase in tuition.

Like Ms. Roach, John W. Oceguera, speaker of the Nevada Assembly and an assistant fire chief in North Las Vegas, also understands the value of a college education. He holds a law degree and a master's degree in public administration from the University of Nevada Las Vegas and a bachelor's degree in fire administration from Cogswell Polytechnical College. Mr. Oceguera draws upon his education in his professional life as a legislator. He points out that his master's degree in public administration was important in preparing him for running for office, and that his law degree helped to provide insight into how legislation is crafted.

Perhaps the most interesting proponent of higher education is Jack Kibbie. Mr. Kibbie has served in the Iowa Legislator for over five decades, first beginning in 1960 and then from 1988 to the present. He has never attended a day of college, yet Mr. Kibbie was one of the principal architects of Iowa's community college system, which helped bring higher education to rural areas of the state. Today, the state's community college system is home to 106,000 students. Mr. Kibbie never went to college because of his obligations to the family farm and admits that he has faced some obstacles in higher education legislation by not having a degree.

A Place for All Voices

Emily Ann Cain is one of Maine's most educated legislators. She is a fourth-term legislator who holds a master's degree in higher education from Harvard University and is currently working on a Ph.D. at the University of Maine. Her educational background provides her with insight into academia and its relevance. This proves essential when dealing with colleagues who are distrustful of faculty members and institutions of higher education. However, she believes that lawmakers' minds can be changed if someone with experience in the field reaches out to them.

Last year, for example, a legislator wanted to remove gender studies programs from public universities in Maine. She sent him some literature on the importance of gender studies and he changed his mind. While Ms. Cain understands the importance of higher education, she does not believe that all lawmakers should hold degrees. Lawmakers should come from all different backgrounds and represent different groups. For Ms. Cain, personal conservations between lawmakers are more important and provide a way to share knowledge and lessen differences, thereby enriching the decision-making process in legislation.

Still unsure about the value of a degree? Find out if you're ready to attend college.

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