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August 24, 2014 7:53 PM Public Universities Need to be Nurtured, Protected as an Investment for All

By Janet Napolitano

For the nation’s colleges and universities, this is a time for reflection and deliberation. From President Obama to state legislators, political pundits to concerned parents, people are raising significant questions about American higher education. Many question pedagogical models, and wonder whether online education is a magic silver bullet. Others question the worth of a university education, the value of going to college at all. And still others debate the disciplines that students study, some arguing that the point of a college degree is to get a job, and others arguing that the point is to pursue a passion (personally, I think you can do both).

Parts of this dialogue will lead to real change, and this is appropriate. There have been changes in higher education throughout its history; little from 21st century campuses or course curricula would look familiar to a 14th century student from Oxford or Heidelberg. But some of the fundamentals have remained constant for good reason. One of these fundamentals is that our nation’s public universities and colleges matter—in fact, they matter tremendously. Another is that these institutions need to be nurtured and protected as major investments in our collective future.

Public universities and colleges educate nearly three-quarters of all the college students in this country. These include students who are fresh out of high school, and students who enrolled after serving overseas in our Armed Forces; students who attend part-time while raising children or caring for aging parents, and students who graduate early, heading straight to law school, or that Ph.D. program with the Nobel Laureate.

By virtue of their student populations alone, public universities and colleges are critical to America’s societal and economic well-being. At the same time, a subset of public higher education—public research universities like the University of California—conducts research that creates new knowledge, and undertakes public service that benefits communities near and far.

These universities and colleges are also the defining institutions for the states they serve. So it is troubling to consider that at some point in the last six years, 41 state legislatures in the United States slashed funding for their public universities and colleges.

Sadly, funding remains constrained for public higher education, despite an economy that slowly grows more robust. Only 14 states have re-invested in higher education at levels equal to or above their pre-recession levels. Last year, 20 states actually cut more funding from their public universities and colleges. UC today enrolls more than 6,000 California resident undergraduates for whom it has never received state dollars.

When states under-invest in public higher education, bad things happen. Tuition goes up. Student debt goes up. And the public begins to think that higher education is a private luxury, not a public necessity.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

This country’s public universities and colleges foster an active, thinking citizenry. They enhance public spirit. They educate—and more importantly, elevate—vast numbers of young people. These institutions are public goods, through and through, that benefit all of us, and not just the students who attend them.

As a former governor of Arizona, I am familiar with the dilemmas presented by competing demands when resources are limited. And I understand return on investment.

Clark Kerr, one of my predecessors at the University of California, famously said the following with regard to keeping the doors of the university wide open:

“The best investment that any society makes is in the education of its young people, and this shouldn’t basically be looked upon myopically as a ‘cost;’ it should be looked upon as the best investment that any society can make.”

Kerr’s words serve as an important reminder of what is at stake for our country. So much of the dialogue surrounding higher education has become transactional, when in fact, public universities and colleges are transformational.

At the University of California, transformation happens every day. It begins on an individual level with our students.

Of the university’s more than 180,000 undergraduates, 44 percent are first generation college students. Thirty percent are transfer students from California community colleges. This fall alone, one quarter of the freshman class comes from homes where English is not the primary language.

Forty-two percent of our undergraduates receive federal Pell grants, meaning that they come from very low-income families. And here is an interesting fact: Within five years of graduating from the University of California, those students as individuals are earning salaries that are higher than what their families’ combined incomes were before they went to college.

This is a number that underscores the powerful social mobility at work in a public university. These graduates are growing California’s economy. And they should give everyone great hope not only for the state of California, but for the future of the entire country. California is America, to quote Wallace Stegner, “only more so.”

Transformation at UC also happens at a broader, societal level through the university’s public service.

UC students themselves are ambassadors for contributing to the public good. And they give back in ways that are noted by the Washington Monthly annual rankings. The Washington Monthly stands alone in its inclusion of public service as a crucial metric in its ranking system—not only public service undertaken by the institution, but also public service by the students who attend it.

More than half of all UC undergraduates perform community service. They tutor elementary school students, lead beach clean-ups, run food pantries. They travel the globe, working to solve problems in impoverished countries near and far. In that same spirit, more than 10,000 UC alumni have served as Peace Corps volunteers, more than any other university system in the country.

As a university, UC is on the ground in hundreds of high schools across the state, guiding students on how best to prepare for college—not just public colleges, but any college. UC online programming trains teachers throughout the state in new course curricula, and UC offers free online high school courses for California school districts with limited access to college preparatory course materials.

UC trains nearly 50 percent of the medical students and residents in California. It operates the nation’s largest health science education program. And UC plays a critical role in the state’s safety net, with hundreds of millions of dollars in unreimbursed and charity care recorded at its hospitals and medical centers each year.

UC’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources serves tens of thousands of California youth through 4-H, and all Californians through school and community gardens, and agricultural, nutritional, and resource management education across the state. Farther afield, UC agriculture researchers are at work in more than 130 countries, problem-solving and working with local populations on complex agricultural challenges.

Fostering social mobility, and contributing to the public good, are hallmarks of public universities and colleges like UC. It is true that private universities and colleges in this country do what they can on these fronts as well. Ultimately, however, they possess different markets and different models. And at the end of the day, they simply do not educate numbers of young people on the same scale as do our public universities and colleges.

Behind all of the numbers and statistics are students with compelling life stories. I’d like to tell you about just two:

First, Mike Drake.

Mike joined the U.S. Army right out of high school. He turned eighteen when he was in basic training. Not long after, he deployed to Afghanistan, where he served as a combat medic. In one firefight in 2007, he stabilized eleven injured soldiers.

When Mike returned to the United States, however, finding employment was difficult—even for a veteran who had been awarded an Army Commendation Medal with Valor. So Mike went back to school, and ultimately enrolled at UC Berkeley. When he graduated in May, Mike became the first member of his family to earn a college degree. This summer, he worked as a Legislative Associate Intern for a veterans services organization called Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America in Washington, D.C. Mike’s goal? To help others—veterans as well as other individuals—succeed on the path to their dreams.

Second, Axana Rodriguez-Torres.

Axana is a political asylee from Colombia. Once she made it to the US, she fought through health issues as she figured out how to make a life in a new country. She cleaned houses. Served fast food. Babysat children. Worked as a tax preparer for other immigrants.

None of her Colombian academic credits transferred to an American university. So she worked her way through a community college near Sacramento. Ultimately, she made it to UC Davis, where today, Axana is earning a master’s degree in Public Health. Her goal? In Axana’s words, “As I’m pursuing my dreams, I’m helping others to pursue theirs.”

The stories of Mike and Axana are really the story of the American Dream. And today, they in turn are helping others create their own American Dream story. That’s because fundamentally, the University of California, like the country’s other public universities and colleges, is in the dream-making business.

We are fortunate that this country is already home to renowned public educational institutions that other nations are just now starting to emulate. But unless we invest in them, they will not stay renowned for much longer.

Funding our nation’s public universities and colleges is a matter of priorities, leadership, and knowing the difference between a cost and an investment. It is a fiscal challenge for some, and a moral challenge for all. These are public goods that work for the public good; they deserve the stewardship that public goods demand, and that the young people of this country deserve. We must not let the American Dream die with the Baby Boomers. We must, instead, preserve the institutions that have made that dream come true—for students like Mike and Axana—generation after generation.

Janet Napolitano is president of the University of California system of 10 campuses, five medical centers, affiliated national laboratories and a division of agriculture and natural resources.

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