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Karen Hitchcock: Investing In The Future

In 1972, The United Negro College Fund, now known as the U.N.C.F., adopted what was to become one of the most widely recognized slogans in the country.  That still well-known slogan was : “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste.”  And now, this statement is being expanded upon in an effort to focus on the return people who donate to the fund can expect … to focus on such donations as investments in our country’s future. The new slogan builds directly on the old and states:  “ A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste, but a Wonderful Thing to Invest in.” While perhaps not as succinct as the original, the public policy issue being introduced is a critical one.

The President and Chief Executive of the U.N.C.F., Dr. Michael L. Lomax, was recently quoted in the New York Times (Jane L. Levere, June 4, 2013) regarding the rationale for this change: “ The new campaign was relevant today, he said, as the United States challenges ‘itself to compete globally by producing talent. This isn’t charity any longer. This is an investment in individual students, an investment in our nation’s workforce, an investment in retaining our global competitiveness.’”  In a very clever radio ad which is part of the campaign introducing this new slogan, a student tells us that it’s all about “better futures. “  “…you invest to help students like me go to college. Which ends up making the future better for all of us.  My name is Alisha.  And I’m your dividend.”

I applaud the approach the U.N.C.F. is taking. I have long felt that money devoted to public higher education by the state and federal governments should be seen as an investment in our collective futures, not simply as a cost with no benefit or return to the taxpayer.  The need for quality postsecondary education has never been greater as expectations continue to increase across all levels of our nation’s workforce.  Secondary education alone, is no longer sufficient .  And, yet, even as the demand for postsecondary education increases, our country has experienced a significant and long-term decrease in state funding for our colleges and universities. In fact, just over the last five years, state funding for higher education has decreased  nationwide some 28%, as recently reported by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (2013).  Here in New York, state funding for public higher education decreased 14.7%  between 2008 and 2011, remaining about level over the last two years.  Indeed, taking the long view, twenty years ago, two-thirds of the State University of New York’s operating budget came from the state; today, state support is less than one-third.

The inevitable result of such a disinvestment by state governments in public higher education has been major increases in tuition across the country in order to fill this funding gap.  At the State University of New York, tuition has increased 17.5% since 2008. In some states, the change has been even more dramatic and damaging in terms of affordability and access, especially for students from lower socioeconomic  groups.  In states like Arizona where  state support for students has decreased by half or more, untenable increases in tuition have occurred.  For example, in Arizona, California and Florida such tuition increases have ranged from 67% to 78%. Given such major increases,  it is not surprising that students from low socioeconomic groups  are much less likely to participate in postsecondary education –  indeed, only 44% of such students attend college, versus 88% of students from the highest socioeconomic groups (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2013). This is a disparity we cannot, as a nation, afford  to have continue.

Reversing this trend is essential if we as a country are to maximize the potential of all our young people, regardless of race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status.  If we are to retain our economic competitiveness, no mind can be wasted, no potential left unfulfilled.  So, Bravo to the U.N.C.F. for highlighting education as an investment  -  an investment in every individual mind, and an investment in our nation’s future.

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.