Education is the missing piece to achieving our national goals

Education is the missing piece to achieving our national goals
© Getty Images

On Tuesday night, we heard two speeches from U.S. leaders that barely mentioned education — and yet education is absolutely fundamental to both speakers’ visions of America’s success.

In his State of the Union address, President TrumpDonald John TrumpProtesters tear down statue of Christopher Columbus in Baltimore 'Independence Day' star Bill Pullman urges Americans to wear a 'freedom mask' in July 4 PSA Protesters burn American flag outside White House after Trump's July Fourth address MORE focused on workforce development and job training, emphasizing vocational schools “so future workers can learn a craft and realize their full potential.” That’s an important role for education, but it’s also a very narrow one.


If you look at many of Trump’s other objectives, they depend on a strong education system that does more than simply teach vocational skills. To mention only a few: finding solutions to the opioid crisis, attracting investment from multinational corporations, revitalizing the nuclear arsenal, attracting skilled immigrants, and helping ex-offenders reintegrate into society. These goals cannot be achieved without educational institutions that also produce researchers, innovators, and creative problem-solvers, in addition to people with narrowly defined technical skills.


In his official response for the Democrats, Rep. Joe KennedyJoseph (Joe) Patrick KennedyThe Hill's Campaign Report: Jacksonville mandates face coverings as GOP convention approaches Steyer endorses Markey in Massachusetts Senate primary Celebrities fundraise for Markey ahead of Massachusetts Senate primary MORE actually spoke from a vocational school in Massachusetts and mentioned the need for “a good education that you can afford,” but his primary emphasis was on the need for Americans to come together and support one another regardless of background. Right now our schools, colleges and universities do more than any other institutions in our society to bring together people of different backgrounds and to give them an opportunity to learn from each other and with each other.

Although many of our education institutions can and should do more to recruit more low-income, first-generation, rural and minority students, these institutions have made enormous progress in opening up higher education to students of different backgrounds. Ultimately, welcoming and accepting all people means welcoming and accepting them into our educational institutions.

My concern is that we Americans, like the speakers, too often take for granted our education system. We assume that it will continue to function even as we reduce funding and impose new demands without providing adequate support. For example, proposed cuts to the federal budget endanger basic research funding, and changes to federal financial aid policies could make it more difficult for students to attend and graduate.

The consensus on the recent tax reform bill is that it will have a net negative impact on colleges and universities (in fact, some interpreted certain components — such as the tax on endowments — as intentionally designed to punish certain wealthy institutions). With declines in state funding and added pressure to keep tuition low, tuition increases no longer are sufficient to finance university operations and improvements. Advancement funds often are the way to fill revenue gaps or fund new and innovative programs that can help more students succeed. But the tax bill no longer offers the same incentive for families to make charitable contributions.  

Immigration restrictions are one of the factors driving a decrease in new enrollments from international students, which not only reduces diversity on campuses but also impacts a critical source of university revenue. One in three prospective international students is now less interested in studying in the United States because of the current political climate, according to an EAB survey.

Moreover, the survey shows that changes in politics and public policy can significantly influence international student enrollments, and not just students who are directly affected. While 41 percent of respondents from the Middle East reported decreased interest in studying in the United States — a higher percentage of students than any other region — students from other areas were not too far behind; 35 percent of respondents from Asia, Europe and Canada, for example, said they were less interested in studying in the United States because of political developments here.

The recent debates over free speech on college campuses are a sign of the diversity and passion of our students. Government attempts to intervene in these debates, or to punish institutions for how they handle these controversies, have a potential to chill rather than increase civil debate on campuses.

Once we acknowledge that education is central to all our national goals, we can begin to talk productively about what it will take to preserve the strengths of our education system and expand its impact to even more people.

David Attis is managing director of strategic research at EAB, a nonpartisan education research company that works with colleges and universities.