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In praise of higher education


For over a century, American higher education has been viewed as a public good as well as a vehicle for personal growth. It has been a source of scientific and technological advances as well as a means for individual intellectual and social development. According to such polls as Gallup and Pew, Americans believe that higher education is nearly essential in helping young people and adults succeed personally and professionally.

We can see this on Long Island, where 15 public and independent colleges and universities prepare the region’s students for productive and satisfying lives in a range of careers, from attorneys to artists to military officers, who contribute to the common good. These institutions enroll over 160,000 students, many the first in their families to attend college; employ over 30,000 people, from groundskeepers to faculty and administrators; have operating budgets of over $5 billion, yielding tax revenues and retail sales for the local and state economies; and hold over $1.5 billion in invested funds.

If a community started an economic development initiative seeking an employer whose workforce included highly educated people who would be active locally, whose “products” and services added to the economic and cultural well-being of the community, whose operations were respectful of the local ecology and whose economic impact would be significant, it wouldn’t have to look much further than its closest college or university.

Nationally, however, there are an increasing number of critics of higher education, some of whom even question the value of a college degree. According to recent reports by Pew and Gallup, those surveyed said they were deeply concerned about higher education because of increases in tuition and student debt, and questions about the relevance of academic programs.

Survey respondents’ dissatisfaction with colleges correlated closely to their political affiliation, with more Republican-leaning respondents saying higher education is going in the wrong direction. Those respondents were also much more likely to mention allegations that college faculty bring their political and social views into the classroom, and that colleges spend too much time protecting students from views they might find offensive.

While we in higher education may question the design of the surveys, the vagueness of the questions and the definition of “college” they use, the results are the work of established polling organizations, and help perpetuate public views. Therefore, we should take these findings, and the resulting news stories, seriously and try to understand not only why these views exist, but also what we can do to regain public trust and confidence in our institutions.

In many public discussions and news articles, higher education is over-represented by wealthy institutions like Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford. Institutions on Long Island are not comparable in terms of students’ family income. Nearly 30 percent of students at Adelphi and over 21 percent of those at Hofstra come from families in the bottom 60 percent of family income (under $65,000), with fewer than 4 percent of families in the top 1 percent ($630,000 or more). In comparison, 15 percent of Harvard students are from families in the top 1 percent; Yale, 18.7 percent; Princeton, 17 percent; and Stanford, 17.5 percent. Long Island institutions are more accessible and offer opportunity to a wider swath of society.

The role of higher education is complex and not easily understood. Not only do colleges and universities challenge what is known through research, scholarship and other creative endeavors, they also act as curators of the past, the archivists of heritage. They bridge the past and the future by preparing graduates for the challenges of careers and commerce as well as citizenship.

Several Long Island colleges and universities are ranked nationally, but none are exceedingly wealthy, aloof from their communities and principally residential in character. Nor are any as the universities of Georgia, Alabama or Ohio State. Instead, our colleges and universities are primarily commuter institutions that fulfill their missions not only in their classrooms and online, but also in their communities.

There are numerous examples of college partnerships with schools, chambers of commerce, nonprofit groups and businesses, not only for the benefit of the partners, but also as part of students’ education. Our research universities contribute to biomedical advances and the understanding of climate physics, among many other contributions. Many of our colleges and universities partner with one another in order to share resources and enhance efficiency. Overall, they are responsive and flexible, and have demonstrated that they can meet societal and student needs with a variety of programs and credentials.

With greater efforts to demonstrate commitments to student success on and off campus and renewed initiatives to serve the public, colleges and universities can strengthen their place in society and regain public trust and confidence as essential forces for social mobility and personal fulfillment. Institutions on Long Island can lead the way.

Robert A. Scott is president emeritus of Adelphi University.