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Ed Schrader: Higher education does make America greater
Political agendas can’t change facts: Colleges boost our nation’s economy and brainpower
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Dr. Ed Schrader, the president of Brenau University. - photo by David Barnes

We are not hearing much blather these days from opportunistic politicians and sensationalist cable TV talk show pundits about their perceived “reforms” through legislation and regulation that collectively amount to a piecemeal assault on America’s higher education system.

Many of the attacks emerged directly and indirectly during the recent budget fight in Congress, with ideas such as lifting penalties for those who bilk consumers in student loans, cutting research budgets and taxing university endowment. They will emerge again later this year if the Senate takes up reauthorization of the Higher Education Act or throws out outrageous election-year alternatives as a smokescreen for why it is not. 

Though these individual attacks are vexing enough, I am still seething over the report last year from 2017 Pew Research that indicated 58 percent of conservative voters in the country believe higher education is bad for the country.

That means the aforementioned politicians and TV pundits have successfully sold a false narrative to the American public, and now, like the back side of a swirling hurricane, have come back around to suck energy from that ill-informed public they helped create to further their personal political agendas.  

A president of a small, not-for-profit university that has been positively impacting people’s lives as an essential institutional citizen of this community, I find myself almost like the character in the old movie “Network” — mad as hell and ready to not take it anymore. 

What we see when you look at this seemingly disjointed acts of local, state and federal government efforts collectively is a piece-by-piece dismantling of a higher education system that is the unchallenged leader throughout the world and a key component of U.S. security, economic stability and personal freedom.

Our uniquely American approach to learning combines processing facts with unbridling the human imagination to solve the grittiest problems. Higher education prepares our students and our country to lead, invent, design and build, all components of a thriving, vibrant, sustainable and caring society. 

Those who sanctimoniously decree that the only important issue government should address is economic improvement, individually and collectively, may be destroying in the process the single most effective economic development tool in the history of humankind.

Higher education is an easy target because academicians generally avoid confrontational behavior. That is probably why our response to this existential crisis tends to be quiet and erudite, articulated with well-chosen logic and quiet alternatives. By nature, we are attuned to civil discourse and respect for alternative ideas; in other words, free speech. 

However, I will respond to the onslaught with plain and straightforward language:

First, what is happening is not special-interest groups attempting to eliminate bits and pieces of higher education. They are going after it all. They are undermining the sustainability of all institutions beginning with those venerable private universities whose charters predate America itself. They are not just attacking the efficacy of these so-called elite institutions; they’re also trashing the great flagship public universities that carry out life-changing and life-sustaining research in medicine, agriculture, social sciences and more. 

And they are not simply trying to silence the voices of these institutions; they’re erasing the cultural and economic impact they have on the communities in which they operate.

Here is another fact: More than 1 million foreign students on legitimate U.S. visas entered the United States in 2016 to enroll in American colleges and universities. Most paid more tuition than their American counterparts. If you look at it through the zero sum lens of the “balance of trade” isolationists, by contrast about 300,000 American students studied abroad in the last year such statistics were reported.

Many of the foreign students came to us because they placed such a high value on American education that many of their parents scrimped and saved from their child’s infancy to provide them with the opportunity for American higher education. That should be an encouraged source of national pride.

Here is another myth-buster: A college degree ensures prospects for vastly expanded lifetime earning capabilities. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, high school graduates can expect, on average, to earn $1.2 million, while those with a bachelor’s degree will earn $2.1 million; and those with professional degrees such as medicine, law and engineering do best at $4.4 million.

You want “entitlement reforms” that seek to compel people, many of who are uneducated, to work in menial jobs instead of staying on the government dole? A national effort to improve people’s educational opportunities will convert dropouts to graduates, increasing income and reducing budgets required for public support, and increasing tax revenues from people working in better-paying jobs thrown in to boot.

That is not trickle-down fantasy of tax breaks for the wealthy that will automatically generate jobs and create more taxpayers. It is the trickle-up reality of higher education.

Over a lifetime, a bachelor’s degree holders will contribute an average $381,000 more in taxes than they receive in benefits. That compares with the average net for those with only high school diplomas of about $26,000 in a lifetime. If you increase the number of college graduates by just 10 percent, you will substantially increase state, local and federal tax revenues without increasing any taxes.

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Brenau University's Pearce Auditorium is a 700-seat, 19th century opera house dedicated on May 21, 1897, as “the largest of its kind in the South.” - photo by Scott Rogers
Those with college degrees are more than twice as likely to volunteer for a religious, social or nonprofit cause, and they contribute nearly 3« times more money to charity. Finally, 75 percent of bachelor’s degree completers vote in presidential election years, compared with about 52 percent of high school graduates, according to a report from the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities.

We have heard a lot about “crippling college debt” in America today. There will be story after story about the graduate who left an Ivy League school with a major in something like classical French literature and $150,000 in debt only to land a part-time job as a barista. However, in truth, the average student graduates from a private American college after four years with debt of about $29,000, less than half of that for graduates from a public college. 

Sure, you can cite mind-boggling numbers like loans totaling in aggregate hundreds of millions of dollars. And, you can seize on an example of an unfortunate soul who has a sky-high debt with a degree in a discipline that offers very little opportunity in today’s job market. Don’t forget that a $29,000 loan buys an average increase in lifetime earnings of a million dollars over a high school diploma.

Hard data tell us the very true story that the average college graduate holding any type of degree is more likely to be employed than a person graduating only from high school, and a college graduate finds employment within six months of graduation on average as well. Far from being crippled by debt, many graduates will take on more debt quite voluntarily — like the cost of buying a brand new automobile — in that first year of employment. We do not hear pundits complaining about that level of indebtedness for recent college graduates.

In fact, if it did not make me so angry, I see all over the internet articles like “The 10 best Cars for New College Grads” that invariably start with a line like, “Saddled with student loans ... many recent college graduates must add one more financial pressure to the list: a car.”

My desire is that other Americans, especially those like me who have benefitted so much from higher education, will once again embrace the truth. Not only is higher education good for America and Americans, but supporting it is boldly patriotic. It is a vital economic engine. It is the underlying gravity that holds together the American ideal and moral philosophy.

Anyone who tells you otherwise is a scallywag.

Ed L. Schrader, Ph.D., has been president of Brenau University in Gainesville since 2005. He is a member of the board of trustees of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.