35 years ago this week, I turned 17 and started my freshman year at Notre Dame. It didn’t end well. I nearly flunked out, having selected an engineering curriculum sadly out of reach for my New Mexico public education.

I was able to right the ship sophomore year and select a major that would get me out in four years, somewhat employable (Economics). You see, I was attending on scholarships and there was no money for a five- or six-year plan.

This week, President Biden announced the federal government will forgive student loans up to $10,000 for borrowers earning less than $125,000 and $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients. In New Mexico, Gov. Lujan Grisham has already made tuition at public universities essentially free for most New Mexicans.

I don’t think this is a great idea. Not because everyone today should struggle as I struggled. Because college is not for everyone. And making it nearly free retroactively during surging inflation is economically inane and purely a millennial vote-getting ploy.

My larger concern is for our state. We have the third-lowest workforce participation rate in the nation. Only Louisiana and Arkansas fare worse. Just 56.7% of the available workers in New Mexico are working. The pandemic has contributed to this, as well as the coincident lack of quality childcare.

Workforce training is crucial. Yet vocational training has all but disappeared from many of our public schools. We have some great vocational charter schools in are larger cities, but our smaller communities don’t always have that luxury. We have good training programs at our community colleges. But we still have a gap between high school graduates and employers.

And this training gap isn’t just for traditional trades like mechanics and electricians. A friend of mine owns a coffee shop in Albuquerque. Over breakfast a couple months ago, he was bemoaning the hours he was spending with recruiting and hiring and training. It’s a huge risk to hire someone with no experience and also no training. Customer service and food and beverage training would be a tremendous force multiplier in our state’s workforce development.

And for the college bound, we need to prepare them better. One out of four New Mexican public high school graduates entering New Mexican public colleges or universities require remedial courses. Remedial courses mean a longer road to graduation, and a greater chance of not finishing.

We need to rethink the entire post-high school graduation experience. We need to be preparing our young people to take their place in the workforce. For some this will be college, to learn a skill like engineering, IT or business and enter the job market in their early 20s.

For some, like aspiring doctors and lawyers, college is just the beginning of years of school (and debt for graduate school). Could this model be changed? The daughter of my college roommate just took the New York bar exam three years ahead of her peers. She attended the University of Edinburgh, where would-be lawyers complete what we consider a bachelor’s and a law degree simultaneously.

That’s a great use of her family’s money, and lets this young woman get into her field three years earlier.

And for other high school graduates, they need to be ready to enter the workforce. This means they need to graduate. While our state’s college remediation numbers have improved over the last four years from about 33% to about 25%, our overall high school graduation rates hover around 75%.

The notion of 25% of high school students not getting a diploma in four years is truly shocking. Yet these are our best numbers ever. And this is where our workforce numbers crumble.

And these improved-yet-lousy numbers, in my opinion, come largely from a concerted effort by our behemoth Albuquerque Public Schools district to inflate grades and move kids out. According to an APS high school teacher I spoke with, they are encouraged not to flunk kids who do nothing. Because they might be “trying.”

Trying to plus up their graduation numbers.

It’s one thing to look at record oil and gas revenues and make college free for those who are accepted into institutions of higher learning. That demonstrates a certain level of child developmental success. It’s much more difficult to tackle the profound human services needs for the children who aren’t going to make it out of high school and be left to fend on their own in their late teens.

But someone needs to.