Americans once embraced higher education as the great equalizer. State colleges and universities allowed children from working- and middle-class parents to compete on a level playing field with children from more advantaged backgrounds. The race gap in higher education has also been closing, with more African-American and Hispanic students achieving degrees.
On this backdrop of accessibility and opportunity, things are, unfortunately, changing. Due to the recession, states slashed higher-education budgets in 2008. In consequence, tuition has increased across the nation. For many American students, the financial burden of earning a college degree quickly overshadows the dream.
The recession forced Alabama to decrease the higher-education budget by 34 percent in 2008. Despite steady economic recovery since 2011, it has been difficult to restore higher education funding to pre-recession levels. Our state colleges and universities have struggled to keep tuition costs down, but the question remains: How long can our public colleges and universities walk the tightrope between excellence and affordability without renewed state investment?
In establishing state institutions of higher education with the first land grants in the 1860s, our forefathers believed education to be an investment in the state. They wanted to build a well-trained, well-educated workforce and to create knowledge centers that can attract business.
To be sure, not all jobs or careers require advanced degrees, but many of the new jobs created recently in Alabama do. Several high tech and international businesses have opened in Alabama over the last decade. These companies need engineers and scientists, people who can communicate in multiple languages. Data show that, indeed, state universities outflank private schools in advancing knowledge and research that drive our local economies.
Further, state-supported institutions are essential to the public good. They train the people who take care of us, such as teachers and health care professionals. Moreover, communities with a higher education-driven health care center show substantial gains in patient care and overall health.
Public universities have a $20 billion impact on the state of Alabama. For every dollar the state invests, taxpayers receive $12 in return, whether in terms of jobs created or improvements in health care. Data show citizens with advanced degrees earn more per capita. Simply put, public colleges and universities are a good investment for the community and the individual.
Alabama is home to exceptional institutions of higher education of which the state is very proud. Our colleges and universities have achieved national reputations for excellence and have helped fuel economic growth. Please support and encourage our elected officials in their efforts to restore higher-education funding and to continue the state’s positive momentum.
University of South Alabama Student Government Association President Carl Thomas and Faculty Senate President Elizabeth VandeWaa, Ph.D.
USA SGA Past President Joshua Crownover and USA Faculty Senate Secretary Mara Kozelsky, Ph.D., are contributing writers.