Our opinion: Program is a great opportunity for students

Published 8:10 am Friday, June 22, 2018

Wednesday’s exciting news that students from both Austin High School and Pacelli Catholic School will now have the opportunity to attended Riverland Community College tuition-free is a gigantic and welcome step forward for education in Austin.

Gary Ray, executive director of The Hormel Foundation, announced the inception of the Assurance Scholarship Program Wednesday over the lunch hour and while the setting of a near empty conference room seemed anticlimactic for the weight of the announcement, it nonetheless served as a momentous occasion that suddenly opened up education for so many students that maybe didn’t have much in the way of options for post-secondary education.

In summary, the program, which has been in the works for the last few years, will allow students within the two Austin school districts to attend classes, debt-free, en route to a two year degree at Riverland Community College, provided they meet certain criteria, including enrollment at the two schools as a freshman through senior years and the maintaining of a certain grade point average.

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Not only will tuition be free for those students wishing to take advantage of the program, it will also provide money to help cover books.

For many, the concern of incurring massive student debt may act as a deterrent to reaching a four-year degree. This program now provides a much needed new route towards a two-year degree offered at Riverland, including nursing, truck driving, law enforcement and so much more.

It’s the perfect combination of want and need within today’s workforce and this new program is the perfect partner in making it all work.

“I am smiling ear to ear,” Riverland President Dr. Adenuga Atewologun said Wednesday. “I am jubilated and exhilarated about what this is going to mean for our community … this could help students discover the quality of life for themselves and their future families by staying in the region and boost regional workforce, economic vitality and retention of population in our region.”

There is every reason to be happy about this announcement because not only is this a chance to provide Austin students another alternative after high school, but it also reinforces the responsibility in students to guide their own future.

It’s important once again to point out that while ultimately this will result in debt-free education, it’s not simply a handout. The Hormel Foundation and Riverland, along with Austin and Pacelli, will push the students to meet those criteria that are laid out in order to be qualified for this program, putting their futures in their own hands.

As Austin Public Schools Superintendent David Krenz said, “It’s about helping students to go onto post-secondary education, and they have to understand their commitments to this too. There are many ways to get that scholarship.”

That commitment will be no less than that which will be required by future employers.

There are so many things to like about this program, but really it all boils down to one thing — opportunity.

With widening achievement gaps and lower student enrollment in college, this provides a means to not only help fix those issues, but provide opportunity for anyone to achieve a quality education and the hope of a better life for themselves.

All four of these institutions and those people working within them should be highly commended for stepping up and doing their part to provide a better community through the simple accessibility to more educational opportunity.

We see bright things in the future for Austin, and now that bright future is in the hands of those who will help shape it.