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CITIZEN'S VIEW: JULIE PARRISH — We can reshape Oregon as an education leader even as we keep a cautious eye toward the job market

This month, I had the unique opportunity to sign nearly 1,000 congratulation letters to West Linn and Tualatin high school graduates. Around the district, balloons are tied to mailboxes for graduation parties, and shoe-polished car windows share well-wishes. A constant stream of pictures on Facebook documents joyous celebrations and final farewells with friends.

For parents who supported the class of 2012 by spending countless hours helping with homework, carpooling to sports practices, picking up kids from music lessons and volunteering for PTA, those responsibilities have come to an end. Thirteen years went by in a blink. But as moms and dads (and grandparents) relinquish those duties, the next leg of the journey comes with new worries.

Newly minted graduates will start down paths that include community and four-year colleges, trade schools, military service, volunteering or religious missions. The future feels bright, but a cloud looms as families struggle to balance the excitement of new adventures with challenges they see coming.

For the college-bound, rising tuition costs weigh deeply on families. Parents have significant concerns about the debt load their children will accumulate obtaining a degree. When the class of 2012 started kindergarten, parents couldn't have imagined how tuition, fees and housing would skyrocket. Bills arriving in mailboxes right now are staggering. Even families that prudently planned are coming up short.

Many consider community college an alternative to incurring four-year university costs. Having taken that road myself, it's a viable and affordable pathway to a four-year degree. However, Oregon's community colleges are increasingly crowded with adults seeking new job skills in the wake of a long-lasting recession. Highly competitive programs force some students to wait to begin on career-tracks.

Parents have a cautious eye to the job market four years from now. Oregon's unemployment rate continues to remain high. A friend's daughters, recently graduated from college, can't find jobs in Oregon. Families who feel confident they'll meet quarterly tuition bills lack faith their children can obtain living-wage jobs with health care benefits in Oregon.

Blink again and the class of 2012 will be college graduates of 2016. Oregon has four years to rebuild our economy so students coming home from college can find work near home. Policymakers must support ideas that grow the economy. Community colleges, trade schools and universities should be held accountable for degrees they confer. We must ensure that for consideration of tuition and fees, a student can receive a degree that connects them to future employment. Student loans incurred will be insurmountable without means to pay them back. Higher education institutions should match program success rates to a student's ability to connect to a job post-graduation. Flexibility of governance is critical so necessary changes can be quickly made to unsuccessful programs.

The class of 2025 starts kindergarten this fall. We have an opportunity to make significant changes across the continuum, pre-kindergarten to college. Governor Kitzhaber hired Rudy Crew as chief education officer to implement reform bills we passed in 2011. By focusing on outcomes, we can reshape Oregon into an education leader. A skilled and educated workforce will have a direct impact on job creation.

A vibrant economy means we can fund and support K-12 education, work to stop college tuition increases and send a message to investors across America that Oregon is open for business.

Julie Parrish, West Linn, serves as state representative for House District 37 - serving the communities of Tualatin, Stafford and West Linn.