University gap felt in Red Deer

There are reasons things are as they are in Central Alberta. Red Deer has a lower-than-average proportion of people with advanced education.

There are reasons things are as they are in Central Alberta. Red Deer has a lower-than-average proportion of people with advanced education. Red Deer has a higher-than-average proportion of people working for $12 an hour or less.

Red Deer is also the centre of the largest zone in Western Canada — second largest in Canada — not served by a university.

We have a low rate of graduation from our high schools, but the grads we do produce are among the best-trained in the world.

What happens to all those bright high school grads we turn out every year? Why do they choose in lower numbers than elsewhere to turn their credentials into higher education and careers in the knowledge economy of their home town?

Is it possible that because we do not have a university, they leave for training opportunities elsewhere — never to return?

The reasons for it all may be hard to quantify, and the connection to low salaries in this city may be less than surmised. But the loss of hundreds of bright, inquisitive minds every year is real, and costly.

Red Deer College does an admirable job as a training centre for trades, and as a satellite centre for degree programs in partnership with the Universities of Alberta and Calgary. But that still falls short of the full university experience.

It must also be noted that Red Deer College — and this whole city — have tried for decades to convince the province it deserves to morph into a full university, without success. Officially, the RDC board has abandoned its campaign to gain university status.

But local school board and community representatives are keeping the issue alive. Their talks are preliminary now, of course.

Many things must happen before anything becomes formal — among them a change in government. But because things are the way they are, informal talks are not enough.

The discussion requires a greater sense of urgency than it has now.

Red Deer Public Schools superintendent Don Falk says the partial programs at RDC still send students elsewhere. We can add, from experience, that when they leave, they are not likely to come back.

There is another aspect to that point. Because of the high cost of full university, many students opt for the college route for financial reasons, not out of career preference or aspirations for higher learning. University in Edmonton or Calgary for a non-resident costs more than $15,000 a year, including room and board. A master’s degree? Don’t ask.

It would definitely be many thousands of dollars cheaper for a Central Albertan to get a full university degree if there were a university in Central Alberta. And they would be more likely to apply that learning in our area than elsewhere after graduation.

Do we call that “settling?” Perhaps, but if so, why should Red Deer residents “settle” out of proportion to all other residents of Western Canada?

What is the long-term cost to people who didn’t get the training they really wanted or were capable of achieving, because the nearest university was just too far?

Encana Corp. recently donated $1 million to Red Deer College to help build a program which — among other things — will facilitate distance learning better. That’s terrific. When we live in a place and time when the genuine article is becoming scarce, we need more alternatives for students. If we are to build a stronger, more knowledgeable society, Red Deer College is very wise to explore ideas like online teaching to their absolute limits.

But it is not elitist to suggest the university campus experience is still best. The contact with people in the pursuit of knowledge and truth beyond mere job training is exactly what pulls our brightest and best away from Red Deer. We know that.

Thank goodness for people in Red Deer who won’t have our students “settle.”

Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.