02/07/2013 10:32 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2013

For Every Mile of Road, There are Two Miles of Ditches

For as long as I can remember, I really wanted to learn to ride a motorcycle, but I kept putting it off for various reasons. So at the tender age of 46, while I was at Indiana University, I bought my first bike (a 2002 Triumph Bonneville America). Before I took my first ride, however, I attended a motorcycle rider course conducted by ABATE in Indiana. The course was terrific, and I would urge anyone thinking about riding a motorcycle to take some sort of riding course, either before riding or as a refresher to reinforce good habits and minimize or eliminate bad habits.

I found that, as I had hoped, I enjoy riding my bike. I am outside, riding a vehicle that is both quick and nimble (well, at least as quick and nimble as its rider will allow it to be). Riding is a great way to clear my thoughts because I find that when I'm riding, I have to concentrate on one item of paramount importance -- keeping the shiny side up and the rubber side down. One of the best take-home messages I got from the ABATE course that has helped me keep the shiny side up is the importance of looking down the road, not just over the front wheel. Because no road is perfect, it is important to look down the road to see what's ahead. This is especially critical for motorcyclists, given that certain road conditions can have far more of an effect on motorcycles than on other, mostly larger, vehicles. If you're not looking down the road, you have less time to prepare for variable road conditions, whether it is a pothole, loose gravel, or even wet leaves (the latter of which is especially treacherous on two wheels). Most of these road conditions do not concern drivers of cars and trucks -- they simply drive along, unaffected. Motorcyclists don't have that luxury, and they always have to be looking down the road.

As the president of a small public university (Oregon Tech), I often find myself in an analogous situation to that of riding a motorcycle. Like motorcycles, small universities and colleges can be quick and nimble. Smaller schools have the ability to rapidly change curricula, offer new courses, and try innovative changes in how universities educate students. However, also like motorcycles, small universities and colleges tend to be more vulnerable to normal changes in conditions around them, which is why it is so important to look down the road, stay on the road, and keep out of the ditches.

In Oregon, the governor and legislature have defined what is down the road for education in the state with "40-40-20." Simply put, the goal is to have at least 40 percent of Oregon's population with a bachelor's or higher degree, 40 percent with an associate degree or certificate of accomplishment, and the remaining 20 percent with at least a high-school diploma or GED. Whether we achieve 40-40-20 in Oregon is, in my opinion, less important than the simple fact that 40-40-20 will focus our efforts to turn students into graduates, and all levels of education in Oregon will have to participate in achieving that goal. In short, 40-40-20 will keep us out of the ditches.

What I like most about 40-40-20 is recognition of the importance of education for all Oregonians. What I think we need as a part of 40-40-20 in Oregon is a focus on increasing STEM graduates. STEM degrees are needed in the U.S., and graduates with these degrees will contribute greatly to the economy. Other states are looking down the road at meeting this need. For example, the governor of Connecticut has proposed to invest $1.5 billion in STEM at the University of Connecticut over the next 10 years, while Texas A&M plans to increase the number of engineering majors from 11,000 to 25,000 by 2025 as part of its "25 by 25" initiative.

Lest there be any doubt, STEM degrees are both useful and marketable -- 90 percent of Oregon Tech graduates that respond to our post-graduate surveys report that they are in jobs or in graduate/professional schools within 6 months of graduation. And the most recent results indicate that Oregon Tech graduates have the highest starting salaries of any college or university in Oregon, the highest mid-career salaries of any college or university in Oregon, and the 38th highest starting salaries of the 1,058 U.S. colleges and universities on which reported. In case the name is not enough of a clue, Oregon Tech is a STEM university.

The ambitious plans proposed in Connecticut and at Texas A&M are far-sighted, and look down the road to prepare more of their graduates for critically needed STEM degrees. At Oregon Tech, we will do our part for STEM, at a smaller scale, and I hope that the State of Oregon will continue to support us as we produce graduates with STEM degrees to meet the coming needs and grow the economy here in Oregon.

The first time on a motorcycle when I really looked down the road and not over the top of my tire, it was a bit unsettling. Perhaps, as we look down the road to 40-40-20 in higher education, we may find that we have to prioritize STEM degrees to increase STEM graduates over the next 10-15 years -- as unsettling as it may make us feel. Everyone knows that a diversified educational system is important. But these are historic times, when type of degree and field of study are critical for moving the country and economy ahead. By really looking down the road, whether on a bike or at a university, we will be better prepared for what lies ahead, stay on the road, and stay out of the ditches that lie in wait to collect those who are shortsighted.