10/16/2012 05:51 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2012

Educational Futures

If you want to assess the future of America, it's useful to consider the social lives of students in our high schools and colleges. What kind of contribution will these young people make to the future of our society? No matter how strong an image these students might present, they find themselves on the uncertain threshold that separates childhood and adulthood, a space in which the right or wrong move can chart a bright or dismal path through life.

Consider the case of Mona, a 17-year-old high school senior who is currently applying to colleges. As a friend of her family, I've known Mona for most of her life. Over the years, I've happily watched her become a thoroughly engaging and accomplished young woman. In high school Mona has maintained a 4.02 grade point average. In addition, she's an athlete who competes -- quite successfully -- in track and field. In recognition of her broadly based excellence in the classroom and in athletics, the newspaper of her city named Mona to the All-Metro Academic Team for 2011-12. In 2011, her classmates elected Mona the president of her school's junior class. If that's not enough, she donates much of her spare time to community service.

Given this record of accomplishment, you might think that Mona's life has been easy. It hasn't. She's a child of divorce. What's more her family has faced stressful financial challenges. This summer her maternal as well as her paternal grandfather died, one after a long debilitating illness, the other quite unexpectedly. In the finely crafted essay that she wrote for college admission applications, she didn't dwell too much on her impressive array of achievements. Instead she reflected rather philosophically on the meaning of loss in her young life. The rich examples of her grandfathers' lives, she wrote, have steeled her resolve to be more compassionate, to honor her promises and to complete what she starts no matter the degree of the difficulty.

Mona's compassionate determination embodies our social future. She is an exceptional young woman, but there are thousands upon thousands of young people who are like Mona. Like her, they are smart and full of excitement and energy -- about their future, our future. What will become of them?

They are at a critical juncture. If we invest in them, we secure their future as well as our own. Once more fully supported, investment in education has now sailed into the troubled waters of contemporary politics. Bent on cutting budgets sapped by unnecessary and counter-productive tax cuts, local and state governments have laid off teachers, and cut funding for education. GOP officials, including Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, would like to severely reduce or eliminate federal education programs, like Pell grants. Those grants help students -- kids like Mona -- to afford the ever-expanding cost of higher education, an education that will secure their future as well as own.

Our society, of course, is also at a critical junction. If Governor Romney gets to enact his state-rights, "free enterprise" vision of education, which is, in essence, a set of 19th century ideas designed to confront the complex reality of 21st century education, our schools and colleges will be eviscerated and millions of students will not have the wherewithal to better their lives and contribute to our collective future.

Like most middle class kids, Mona cannot follow Governor Romney's out-of-touch suggestion to ask her family for the money to go to the world class college of her choice. In these hard times, her family doesn't have the resources to support fully their child's higher education. How sad it would be if budget cuts would deny Mona the educational opportunities that she clearly merits. Indeed, supporting Mona's world class education is a social investment worth making.

Before you consider your choices on election day, take time to think about kids like Mona before your vote. Your vote will shape her future -- and ours as well.