Opinion | Education

Higher education an investment we can’t afford to ignore

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

In our current political context, facts are not always facts - although, the fact remains that a college degree benefits individuals and all of American society. 

Some in the Republican Party do not seem to agree that higher education is an investment worth encouraging and have systematically undermined it, through rhetoric and most destructively through policy proposals. 

Ironically, those most poised to gain from a college degree are the "forgotten" who voted enthusiastically for Donald Trump in 2016. According to Pew, "those without a college degree backed Trump 52 percent to 44 percent." 

The administration's actions thus far, however, have not provided a concerted effort to support these most-forgotten. Although the GOP tax plan will provide some short-term relief, it does not address long-term needs. Instead, the tax plan as enacted significantly benefits the rich. If higher education was not a good investment, why does 60 percent of the top income quartile have a college degree? Higher education has secured the economic future of the wealthy; Republicans must see how it can benefit the most-forgotten in their own party.

 

"A majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58 percent) now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country," according to a national survey conducted by Pew Research Center in June 2017. That stands in drastic contrast to 72 percent of Democrats who say college and university educations have a positive effect. 

Many possible explanations have arisen as to why there's such a strong disdain among Republicans, ranging from a backlash against the rise of "identity" politics on campuses nationwide, or the ever-growing cost of higher education making it less accessible to an overall demographic shift of Republicans. 

Yet, trying to decipher the reasons why majorities of Republicans have a negative view of higher education overshadows the real impact Republican politicians are having on enacting policies to directly impact access to colleges and universities.

"President Trump's budget proposes a number of significant cuts to programs that fund higher education and that provide financial assistance to low-income students," the Brookings Institution noted upon the release of the Trump administration's education budget. It has moved from mere talk to real policy decisions, attacking the most vulnerable student groups. In July 2017, I wrote about the proposed cuts to the Child Care Access Means Parents in School program, leaving so many student-parents unable to complete their degrees.

Higher education is an investment that pays high returns for lives and the economy. New research from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and Moody's Analytics found that "raising the level of attainment of higher education degrees has historically yielded long-run economic and social benefits in the United States," including " increas[ing] average earnings by 3.1 percent ... increas[ing] employment by 0.5 percent." 

These effects grow as time elapses. For individuals, graduating college has a wide array of benefits - from reducing the likelihood of unemployment and reliance on public assistance to healthier lifestyles. One study has found that "4 percent of bachelor's degree recipients age 25 and older lived in poverty, compared with 13 percent of high school graduates," as noted in the CollegeBoard's "Education Pays 2016: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society." 

The overwhelming evidence suggests that a college degree is beneficial for all.

Instead of attempting to undermine and systemically attack higher education, the Republican Party should embrace it. It should see the ways in which a college degree can enable so many conservatives who come from low-income backgrounds to gain upward mobility. If Donald Trump truly believes what he said on Inauguration Day, that "the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer," he should support higher education - in the end, higher education is what will make America great.

Alex Serna is a program director for Breakthrough San Juan Capistrano, a nonprofit with the mission to support highly motivated but underserved students become the first in their families to graduate college. He's a 2017 New Leaders Council - Los Angeles fellow and an Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development Emerging Leader. Follow him on Twitter @alsernabjj

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