Higher Education and the Nation's Future
This nation’s commitment to higher education as a public good began in colonial times. Indeed, its first college was over 100 years old at the time of the American Revolution. Our nation’s founders recognized that a vision of limitless individual opportunity was hollow without a commitment to enhancing the capacity of each individual to contribute. They recognized that education is an investment in the individual and in the nation. It enables each person not only to realize the opportunities available in a free society but also to help sustain the institutions that promote those freedoms. Thus a nation’s – or a state’s – attitude toward education is a window on the future. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania made its attitude clear in 1787 when it established the University of Pittsburgh with the acknowledgement that “the education of youth ought to be a primary object with every government.”
The current sharp reductions in state support for higher education stand in stunning contrast to that historical commitment. Unfortunately they are part of an unsettling trend that has been underway for at least thirty years. In each recessionary period, states have reduced support and have never restored that support when the economy recovers. Analysts in the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education now see a pattern emerging of a “race to zero,” with the trend leading inevitably to no state investment in higher education. Current estimates indicate that this could happen in Pennsylvania as early as 2035 – with three other states (Michigan, Virginia, and Oregon) beating us to this unenviable “zeroing-out” position.
Why would we abandon a commitment that has brought such success to this nation? One hundred and fifty years ago, as this nation was engaged in civil war, we affirmed that commitment to the future by federal and state governments in the Morrill Act, which created the largely public land-grant colleges “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”
Today, education has never been more important. With the advance of knowledge accelerating, people’s skills are among the most important drivers of economic progress in the information age. To advance, a society must be dedicated to continuous learning. Each person must be ready to reinvent himself or herself not only to keep pace with change but also to anticipate it. For some people, this will mean college at the beginning of their careers; for others, it will mean college later in their careers. For everyone, it means a commitment to a continual renewal of skills and expansion of understanding.
Our nation’s founders recognized the importance of an educated citizenry to a functioning democracy. This understanding was central to their support for higher education with Thomas Jefferson writing, “anyone who expects a country to be ignorant and free expects something that never was and never will be.” For our nation to remain a world leader, its citizens need the knowledge and discernment to make informed judgments on issues that can have global impact.
Abandoning our historic public commitment to education presents a very different vision of society than the one our founders had when they created this nation and this Commonwealth.