John Comerford

John Comerford, president of Otterbein University

The coronavirus vaccines that more and more Ohioans are receiving every day bring the defenses against COVID-19 that we are all glad to see, and new infections and hospitalizations seem to continue to be on the decline. Those welcome improvements aren’t showing up yet on the economic front, however, and, the pandemic’s toll on jobs and businesses likely will stretch for years to come. 

And tough times for the economy brings tough times for tax revenues and the public efforts for us all that they fund. We saw this reality born out in Gov. Mike DeWine’s recently proposed budget. His two-year plan is full of tough choices, as uncertain revenues collide with ongoing — and growing — needs across our state.

In times like this it might seem difficult to justify any new or additional spending, especially when its payoff won’t come until after the budget’s two-year horizon. Put differently, it is surely difficult to defend planting seeds when people are hungry now.

That’s why it is so gratifying that governor’s proposal includes many such seeds. There are modest increases for K-12 education, public health, protecting the vulnerable, and investing in a skilled workforce. And, most important to the work I do each day, the Ohio College Opportunity Grant (OCOG).

Today, OCOG provides about $101 million for low-to-moderate-income students to attend the Ohio college of their choice. The grant, often combined with the federal Pell Grant, is the reason many of these students can attend college at all.

At Otterbein University, an independent college near Columbus, OCOG and Pell make possible the educations for about one-third of our students — remarkable students whose rates of staying in school and graduating are just as high as their peers’. They add to our campus diversity, enhance the learning environment for every student and are some of our highest achievers. They themselves are seeds – great seeds that will sprout and someday feed us all.

The alternative is stark. Without OCOG, many of students would leave higher education, would not get degrees and would face diminished opportunities for careers. This would be a loss not just for them, but for all of us.

To invest in these students is to invest in Ohio’s shared future. Their capacity to earn good incomes, buy houses, start new companies and contribute as engaged citizens in our democracy will benefit us all.

OCOG funding is not just for the 55,402 student recipients; it is for all Ohioans. And, it comes at the right time as Ohio is working to reduce unemployment and an increasing number of Ohioans are looking to upskill and rise out of the pandemic recession.

To be sure, we should not be satisfied. While the proposed $500 per-student increase restores OCOG to the FY2020 levels ($108.5 million), it is still far short of where it stood during its pre-recession levels. And Ohio’s need-based funding per student still trails far behind our neighboring states. Those states are sowing more seeds and we should aim to catch up someday.

But for now we should give credit where credit is due. Even as a current crisis continues to give Ohio headwinds, the governor has shown the discipline and wisdom to keep his eyes on our future.

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