Next year, the Pell Grant, a need-based federal financial aid program, celebrates 50 years of putting higher education within reach for millions of low-income students. While these grants continue to be vital for student access, they have not kept up with the rising costs of a college degree — especially as other forms of public support for education have waned.
There is a concerted effort among many groups to double the maximum Pell award, an initiative that could benefit many students at Central Michigan University. However, not everyone supports this effort. One of the arguments against increased public funding of higher education is the belief that a college degree is simply an individual benefit, not a public good, and that the individual who stands to benefit should be the one — sometimes the only one — to make the investment.
There is no question that a college degree provides incredible benefits to the graduate, such as higher lifetime earnings and improved health outcomes. However, students are hardly the only ones who benefit from the impact of higher education. Families, communities and our nation also reap the positive outcomes of a more educated society.
Benefits for families and communities
Education is key to social mobility and can be a pathway out of poverty for individuals and their families. The ability to earn higher wages often correlates with living in safer neighborhoods, as well as access to better healthcare and good schools. In addition, degree holders influence the educational attainment of their children. They are more likely to engage their children in educational activities outside of school, and their children are more likely to follow in their footsteps. Children of college-educated parents tend to enroll in more rigorous classes in high school and are much more likely to pursue, and earn, their college degree.
This means our students are not only changing their own paths, they are laying a foundation for future generations to build upon.
College graduates also improve their communities. College graduates earn more over a lifetime and also tend to experience unemployment at lower rates, which leads to paying more taxes — which in turn are invested in everything from local schools and community parks to road improvements and infrastructure projects. They rely less often on public assistance programs and also tend to be more civically engaged – they turn out to vote at higher rates, participate in volunteerism more often and contribute more to charitable causes — than individuals with a high school diploma only.
Educated workers, healthy economy
The correlation between education and the economy was spelled out in a 2013 report for the Economic Policy Institute: “Providing expanded access to high-quality education and related supports — particularly for those young people who today lack such access — will not only expand economic opportunity for those individuals but will also likely do more to strengthen the overall state economy than anything else a state government can do.”
In Michigan, employers’ needs are changing: Many low-skilled jobs have been replaced by careers requiring some post-secondary education and, in many cases, a bachelor’s degree or higher. Nationwide, millions of jobs remain unfilled and employers say they struggle to find qualified applicants. As a result, businesses looking to build new headquarters or to relocate are increasingly likely to choose cities with an existing, well-educated talent pool.
Right now, Michigan is poised to miss out. As Susan Corbin, acting director of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity said, “We’re not competitive with states around us because we need a more talented workforce.” If we wish to continue Michigan’s economic recovery, attracting new businesses and improving the quality of life for all citizens, we must invest in our people. We must ensure access to the education necessary for success in the careers of today and tomorrow.
Higher Education: Good for the public
There are dozens of additional ways higher education positively impacts individuals and communities. This blog does not attempt to address the many ways universities contribute to innovation and research, cultural and historical preservation and education, service to nonprofit organizations and local governments, and more. Instead, my goal today was to demonstrate that investing in students, investing in their access to higher education, is indeed a public good.
Smart, hardworking CMU students earn their degrees and go on to be visionary leaders and change-makers in communities around our state and around the world. Read about the lives and contributions of our alumni and you can clearly see the transformational power of education at work. With the knowledge, skills and experiences gained at CMU, they are generating tremendous good for the public.
We must embrace that higher education is a public good and a private benefit — it is not an either/or proposition. This dual role of higher education enables universities like CMU to be powerful mobilizers of society and communities.