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Public education for the common good

Dean Rosenstone

Dean Steven J. Rosenstone
Photo by Tom Foley

Is public higher education a thing of the past? I don't think so—and I certainly hope not.

If we take the public out of public education, we're in trouble. After all, “public" education isn't just about where we get our resources. It's about our role in the world, about the communities we serve. And that role is something the public must continue to support, with tax dollars and, more than ever, private gifts.

Nationwide, 80 percent of all students in higher education are enrolled at public institutions. Yet state support for these institutions-including our own-has plunged dramatically in recent years.

As public dollars provide a smaller and smaller share of the University's budget, we are forced to rely more heavily on tuition increases and on the generosity of our alumni and friends to ensure excellence, sustain our momentum, and guarantee access. This personal investment of private resources helps secure our future as a public, and public-spirited, university, with an important public role grounded in the commonweal.

A CLA education is tied inextricably to the collective economic, social, political, and cultural well-being of communities throughout Minnesota and beyond. Today's CLA may have a new face—indeed, many new faces—but at its core, it is still and always will be dedicated to public education for the common good, the mission on which this land-grant University was founded.

Investing in the future

This issue of CLA Today features students who, with scholarship support, are becoming leaders for tomorrow's communities.

[Fifty years ago], more than half of the university's budget came from the state. Today, that portion is down to just over one-fourth, while the portion supplied by tuition has climbed to over 60 percent. Just since 1996, undergraduate tuition has more than doubled to make up for declining state support and rising costs.

The probability that these students will make a good living and enjoy material comforts is greatly enhanced by their college education. The personal financial benefits of higher education are considerable: College graduates earn 80 percent more than high school graduates, or about $1 million more over a lifetime.

But there's something more important going on here as well. Our graduates will make valuable contributions to their communities as critical thinkers, problem solvers, and informed, thoughtful citizens. The broader, more public benefits of higher education that grow out of these contributions—everything from strong neighborhoods to vibrant arts communities, from a free press to government leaders elected by informed citizens and responsible to public scrutiny—form the very bedrock of democracy.

Investment in public education-whether the dollars are public or private—is, in my book, undeniably a public as well as a private good. Republican or Democrat, Green or Libertarian, liberal or conservative, or, simply, “independent” —we are all, in the final analysis, in this world together. And public higher education, in my view, is a crucible of a better life and a better world.

As I read the recent New York Times series about college admissions—featuring three students, one whose affluent parents could afford to buy him the education of his choice and two others, less privileged, who had to cobble together financial aid packages—I thought about my own children's future. Of course, I hope my children will be able to attend the colleges of their choice and graduate without the staggering debt that is the burden of so many college graduates.

I hope they will earn a decent living, doing something they love doing. I also hope that they will contribute to society something with value beyond themselves.

I know that most parents share such hopes and dreams for their children. But in my view, if we starve our public universities, and make them unaffordable for any but the most affluent, we not only deprive our children of the chance to follow their dreams—we also impoverish our world culturally, intellectually, and economically.

Sharing the burden

Why support scholarships at a public institution? Haven't we already ponied up for public education every time we've paid taxes?

Yes, we have—but the state is spending a dwindling percentage of those dollars on public higher education. And as state support declines and tuition inevitably increases (this year by about 16 percent), students pay a higher and higher price for the college education that promises them a better life. Meanwhile, they can expect less state and federal financial assistance because of a looming nationwide shortfall in need-based grants and loans.

Public dollars simply don't make ends meet any more.

Students graduating in four years instead of five or more can save several thousand dollars. But even four years of full-time study at the U will cost a student in the Class of 2006 at least $28,000 for tuition alone. And that's out of reach for many students, even those working part time and receiving federal and state aid.

Changing times

Today's students live in a different world than the one many of us grew up in. Fifty years ago, the public good of a university education was widely understood and broadly proclaimed, and public support was flush in a state widely recognized as “the education state.”

In those days, more than half of the University's budget came from the state. Today, that portion is down to just over one-fourth, while the portion supplied by tuition has climbed to over 60 percent. Just since 1996, undergraduate tuition has more than doubled to make up for declining state support and rising costs.

Our scholarship students—our best and brightest—often tell me that without their scholarships they would be unable to continue their education, or would have to transfer to schools offering higher levels of support. And these students are the lucky ones. Only one undergraduate in four at the U receives any scholarship support—and only about four percent of undergraduates receive achievement scholarships.

This fall, an estimated 170,000 college students nationwide will discontinue their education for financial reasons. Some will be our own CLA students—academically successful but financially strapped.

Just imagine the missed opportunities, the lost potential! And then, if you will, imagine this: the glorious sound of hundreds of doors opening, thanks to scholarship dollars.

As you read about our wonderful students in this issue of CLA Today, think about the better world we'll have when these students are out there leading our communities. Think about the impact a single donor can have on many students' lives. And please consider how you might help future generations of CLA students become tomorrow's leaders.

Steven J. Rosenstone
CLA Dean and McKnight Presidential Leadership Chair

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