Gray. Everything was gray, except for the green-clad uniforms of soldiers standing idly on the street corners, but they too produced a gray cloud of smoke above their heads with the cigarettes they smoked. The cement walls of the buildings were gray, even the places where the shells had impacted the walls on the buildings in the city. The early morning light, which was covered by the gray clouds that hid the mountains above the community, gray.
The visitor certainly had a clue that the situation was bleak the previous night when the Russian Aeroflot jet landed close to midnight on a landing strip identified by only two kerosene lanterns, one at each end of the runway; and the custom officials came on the plane to check passports because their was no electricity in the terminal.
Even if not then, when he arrived at a hotel that warned all visitors to turn in their guns (which no one did) and, while the facility had a generator for lights in the lobby, those staying were handed one candle for their room, probably convinced him that in Tbilisi, Georgia, conditions were bleak.
The situation should have been difficult. A bitter civil war had just completed three months previously. Russia, in response to the country’s decision to break from the Soviet Union, cut off the oil that fueled their electricity. A major shortage of food existed. A crisis in health care caused by the presence of an epidemic of childhood leukemia was sweeping the land. According to officials, this was the result of the drift of radioactive clouds from the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.
Heating oil from organizations like the Fund for Democracy and Development and food from the United States under PL 480 (Food for Peace) lifted the shortages somewhat, but the medical crisis was a problem within itself.
In response to widespread criticism of admissions policies at their medical schools, the new government had simply decided to admit and graduate anyone who showed up. Oh, there were more than enough doctors, the problem was many of them couldn’t tell an elbow from a toe.
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I am reminded of Georgia when I hear Democratic candidates for president propose free college for all. I call them Turbo-Tax Democrats after the recent commercials that promised a service that helped prepare tax returns with the tag line, “It’s free, free, free.”
With the current student loan situation, I think we all know what is transpiring. Underfunded by governments, the institutions relaxed admissions requirements, lowered grading standards and imposed the increasing costs on students and their parents.
At the same time, the government loan programs were turned over to the private sector which generated altered access to loan money. First, interest rates were raised and, secondly, interest is now charged from day one, not after the student had left college. The results we are experiencing were foreseeable. Students, and now parents, are saddled with a mountain of debt. But because almost anyone can get a degree, the value of a college education has been diminished.
I am tempted to write “back to the drawing board,” but we don’t need a new plan. In response to the Soviet thrust into space, our government accelerated efforts to attract students to college. The National Defense Education Act was passed by the Congress in 1958. Under the program, the government loaned the money, interest rates were not imposed until graduation and they were held under market rates. When the student repaid the money, the funds went back to the government and was placed in a revolving loan fund, thus the same money was used repeatedly. The solution is apparent: Lower the loan cost and increase public funding.
But I disagree with the Turbos’ idea college ought to be free. The student who is getting the benefit of the education should have a personal financial stake in the outcome of the undertaking. A college degree should be a mark of achievement and distinction, not something handed out on a street corner.
It is ironic the crisis in science education drove us into the academic world, but the solution to today’s problem isn’t rocket science.