A quality education inspires a passion for learning that forms the bedrock of a prosperous and healthy society. Every student deserves an opportunity to build a better future. As president of Kansas’ first university, I am most concerned that reducing federal financial aid for low-income students will limit those dreams. If we do not safeguard the resources used to help individuals with the most need, the impact will deeply affect our nation’s intellectual and social capital. While I sympathize with the difficult task Congress faces of balancing the budget to bring down the deficit, I also believe it is imperative that we weigh the impact of cuts limiting access for students who wish to further their education.
The ongoing debate about the relative value of higher education continues. Is the investment worth it? Are hard skills more important than a well-rounded education? Will a college degree prepare graduates for 21st century jobs? These questions are understandable given the challenges of our economic recovery. However, the most pressing debate before us should be whether we can afford not to give every student a chance to fulfill the American vision.
A recent study by the CollegeBoard Advisory and Policy Center confirms the benefits of a higher education:
• Individuals with higher levels of education earn more and are more likely to be employed. Their median after-tax earnings were 16 percent higher.
• Federal, state and local governments enjoy increased tax revenues from college graduates and spend less on income support programs for them.
• College education leads to healthier lifestyles, reducing health care costs for individuals and for society.
• Adults with higher levels of education are more active citizens.
• College-educated parents engage in more educational activities with their children, who are better prepared for school than other children.
By 2018, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the work force forecasts we will need 22 million new people with college degrees and at least 4.7 million new workers with postsecondary certificates. From 1973 to 2008, the United States saw a 30 percent increase in jobs requiring a postsecondary education.
Over the past few years, public and private institutions have worked to keep tuition increases to a minimum, reduced spending and adopted innovative business strategies in order to protect their primary academic mission. Colleges and universities serve as the economic, cultural and social drivers for their regions while local economies rely on a robust and diverse student population to enrich the financial health of their communities. Fewer overall students will have far-reaching effects not only to our colleges and universities but also on our cities and towns.
What is at stake for our nation? Pell, SEOG and LEAP are more than just financial aid acronyms for low-income students. They form a crucial network of grants and low-interest loans funded from federal, state and postsecondary institutions and put a college degree within reach for some of our most deserving and promising future leaders. Proposals in Congress would reduce the Pell grant by 15 percent and eliminate SEOG, LEAP and additional programs like the Federal Perkins Loan Program, which provide supplementary government-backed loans as a reasonable alternative.
The loss of any avenue of support could well mean the end of many college careers. The high rate of unemployment today has many families struggling to close the gap on financing an education. The Federal Advisory Committee on Student Assistance released findings that point to the decline in financial aid as a leading cause for reduced enrollments and waning graduation rates for low-income students. At Baker alone, this change could impact the ability of one out of every four students to complete a degree. With record shortages anticipated in the nursing and teaching fields, it is crucial that we provide the necessary means for student success. The strength of our nation will be determined by an educated workforce ready to harness the power of innovation and compete in the global economy.
The value of a lifelong passion for learning cannot be measured. At Baker University, we say education is personal. It certainly has been for me and for many of the students I have had the opportunity to know. Although my parents did not attend college, they understood the importance of an education and its ability to change the lives of generations to come. They made sure my sisters and I had those opportunities. By writing about this issue today, I am asking all of us to consider the greater cost to society if many of our citizens lose the opportunity to increase their knowledge and contribute to our world.