Opinion: We must restore confidence in the value of education

It is time for a reality check.

Americans are losing confidence in higher education, its quality and its availability. According to a recent poll by Public Agenda, 57 percent of the public are uncertain about the necessity of college; 46 percent say a college education is a questionable investment; and 59 percent say colleges care most about the bottom line.

Americans are also unhappy with our K-12 schools. According to the 2016 PDK-Gallup poll, 68 percent of the public give our nation’s K-12 public schools a grade of “C” or lower. The 2016 Ed Next poll tells us that 75 percent of the public grade our K-12 schools “C” or lower.

The concerns are backed by hard data.

• Only 25 percent of our high school seniors are ready for college level math and only 37 percent are ready for college level reading.

• Only 53 percent of those who start four-year colleges graduate in six or fewer years.

• Education is still recovering from the recession. K-12 spending is lower in 31 states than in 2008. Half the states are spending less on higher education than they did in 2010.

In this divisive and volatile political environment, education has all but fallen out of the national public policy debates. The topic has been lost in all the talk about terrorism and national security, economy and jobs, immigration and health care.

In many polls inquiring about major areas of national concern, the quality of schools and colleges gets no mention. With the exception of a short exchange about free college tuition, the major presidential candidates have ignored the issue.

The only vocal ones are those from education but, unfortunately, school leaders and other educators at both the K-12 and university levels are relative unknowns and have little impact on national policies.

This silence is extraordinary given the unassailable reality that much of our economic future, commitment to equality, and reliance on civic involvement is directly tied to the quality of our schools and colleges.

The indifference toward our schools and colleges is particularly problematic because it occurs at a time when the education community is deeply divided. Decisions on charter schools, teacher assessment and training, testing, standards, outcomes and cost will shape success and failure for years to come.

If education is to take its rightful place among our national priorities, it must rely on the voice of many constituencies. Governors and mayors must join the coalition. So must business and industry. And the message must be precise and understandable, conclusively showing the direct relationship between the quality of education and more widely acknowledged national challenges.

The presidential elections are on the near horizon creating a forum for discussion about our nation’s future. Now is the time to add education to the agenda. If this issue continues to be sidelined, we can expect that, to the detriment of all of us, it will be sidelined in the future as well.

— Gene Budig is past president/chancellor of three major state universities and president of baseball’s American League. Alan Heaps is a former vice president of the College Board in New York City.