After spending most of my career working in industry, I am fortunate to have served the past decade in public higher education.
What I have seen is both uplifting and heartbreaking.
While wealth or intellect all but guarantees some students the opportunity of higher education, too many others face more difficult paths.
Many of my students are the first in their families to earn a college degree, but they amass significant debt to do so. I see student anxiety at the prospect of repaying debt in a less than robust economy, an economy not structured to fully utilize the skills they gained earning their degrees. Too frequently, I see motivated students who are academically unprepared for the rigors of college. Often the reasons have nothing to do with intelligence, but are rooted in disparities in learning experiences and family lives.
A college education plays a critical role in ending this vicious cycle by moving families firmly into the middle class. Indeed, generations of Americans, including me, a child emigrant to the U.S., have benefited from accessible educational opportunities in a system that has long been the envy of the world.
Education is both an individual and social good. Thomas Jefferson knew that an educated citizenry is the foundation of our democratic form of government – an informed populace using critical reasoning to realize the American dream in a thriving capitalistic system.
In Inequality for All, former Secretary of Labor and political commentator Robert Reich argues that a robust and thriving middle class, the antithesis of the widening gap between the rich and the poor, is necessary for America’s capitalist democracy to flourish. A successful economy and democratic society are built on a strong middle class that has the educational and economic opportunities needed to prosper.
Higher education was once generously supported by the public. In recent decades, however, the pendulum has swung sharply in the opposite direction. It is ironic that the decline in public support for higher education has occurred while the students who pursue a college degree are increasingly diverse.
Have we changed our minds about the importance of an educated citizenry? I think not. Instead we are mired in a vicious cycle where a declining U.S. middle class constantly struggles to keep its head above water, with little left over to reinvest in higher education. Increasingly middle class students are ineligible for financial aid, yet find the prospect of paying for college daunting.
We must, however, find a way or else we risk the political and economic consequences of a poorly educated citizenry, the degradation of the human condition and decline of society. Higher education is more important than ever for individuals and the public good.
Please join me in urging our friends, neighbors and legislators to reinvest in our citizenry for future generations by putting the “public” back into public education. Join me in a new attitude that fosters America’s most important resource by investing in the education of all who are our future. How? In true Jeffersonian fashion, elect those that represent your priorities and be involved in the conversation.
Mark Weiss is president of Western Oregon University in Monmouth.
Higher education was once generously supported by the public.