Opinion: University can’t come soon enough

By David Marsden

No one has questioned Red Deer College’s evolution to university status, but if there are any doubters in the community, Joel Ward has put their worries to rest.

The college had asked the provincial government to support its transition to a university on two other occasions, RDC’s president and CEO told a Red Deer & District Chamber of Commerce luncheon Wednesday.

It was only last year, when advocates pointed out the region’s young people were leaving to attend university elsewhere — and not coming back — that the college received the answer it was hoping for.

It will still be some time before Red Deer University takes form. It has to develop a rigorous 10-year plan that not only sets out how it will deliver university courses, but attaches costs to the process.

The college must also change its governance structure to mirror the ones common in universities.

This is exciting – not just for the college, but the community itself. RDC already has a $539.6-million annual economic impact supporting 7,316 jobs. It’s expected the contribution will double within a decade as the school becomes a full-fledged university.

There’s more than the injection of welcomed cash into the economy, of course, and the sustaining of well-paying jobs. Providing easier access to a university education is certain to benefit the region’s residents in various ways.

Someone with a high school education can expect to receive $33,100 a year. Earning a certificate will boost a person’s income to $41,000, and a diploma is usually rewarded with a $50,800 salary.

Graduates with a bachelor degree can expect to earn $62,100 midpoint in their career.

Clearly, there’s a benefit to getting an education. It allows students to work in a rewarding field of their choice, enjoy a better lifestyle and make a greater contribution to society. And they’ll be able to do that in Red Deer in greater numbers, rather than moving to larger centres.

Importantly, Ward understands it’s essential to continue to nurture the trades programs that have been at the heart of the college’s success. They, along with diploma and certificate courses, will continue to be a gateway to great careers for many students.

Ward will be retiring soon after a decade of overseeing the college, but he possesses an ambitious vision for Red Deer University. He hopes it won’t simply be built on courses such as history and philosophy, which are the hallmark of universities everywhere.

As important as these areas of study are, he envisions the university focusing on “innovative programming,” such as cyber security, robotics and artificial intelligence.

“We have to have programs that will meet current and future job needs,” said Ward on Wednesday. He imagines a “different” university.

He took aim at schools such as Harvard, which receives about 100,000 applications for 5,000 first-year student seats.

A university should be measured by how many people it lets in, not by how many it keeps out, he argued.

“You have to do the work, you have to meet the standard, you have to graduate, but we’re not going to be a barrier to getting you into our institution,” said Ward.

“If you can’t get in, you are closing the door on a lot of central Albertans.”

There’s great wisdom in that belief, and Red Deer can be thankful for Ward’s skillful shepherding of the college.

Here’s hoping the homework of Ward and countless others soon comes to fruition.

David Marsden is managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

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