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Why We Must Fund the Knowledge Economy

Funding higher education is an essential investment in our economy and our democracy

In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama said "higher education can't be a luxury—it's an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford." But the hard truth is that it's not. And it won't be until we make some changes and view higher education as an investment in everyone's future.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, over the past 30 years America has slipped from first to 21st in high school completion rates and 15th in college completion rates compared to other nations. Today's students are facing obstacles that make earning a college degree a much harder journey than it was just a few years ago.

Among young people who are striving to become the first in their families to graduate from college the challenge is significant. Admission to public universities has become much more difficult—both academically and financially. Financial aid awards have been reduced in recent years, so even if a student does get in to her school of choice, she may not be able to attend. Students are abandoning public colleges in favor of private universities where more scholarship money is available. Cutbacks on campus also mean required classes for certain majors are often unavailable, prolonging the length of time and money needed to obtain a degree. It has become the norm in California and many other states for it to take up to six years to graduate.

The recent protest by tens of thousands of students in Sacramento, California over higher education funding last week shows how dire the situation has become. As a result of budget cutbacks, students' schedules are erratic, with classes spaced out over several semesters when they previously fit into one. Students must sacrifice opportunities typically presented during the summer—like internships and other career-building experiences—in order to take classes that did not fit into their schedules during regular school year. As a result, these students enter the workforce at a competitive disadvantage compared to students who are able to take advantage of career-focused opportunities.

Some argue that the problems with access to higher education begin at the start of the school experience. "Having money is simply more important than it used to be when it comes to getting a good education,"Stanford professor Sean F. Reardon wrote recently in the The Atlantic. "A dollar of income ... appears to buy more academic achievement than it did several decades ago." Given that low-income students have reduced access to college-prep curricula, it's easy to see how the gap in higher education achievement has nearly doubled in the last 35 years. And, the question remains: Once students are in college, how do we help them graduate and boldly step into the world of work?

At First Graduate, the college access and success program I run in the San Francisco Bay Area, we've learned a lot by working closely with students and their families who are facing these obstacles. Only 4 percent of middle-school students in San Francisco who do not have a family tradition of college attendance can expect to graduate from college without intervention, but we've made progress against the achievement gap by taking a high-touch, long-term approach to working with students and their families from the summer before seventh grade through college graduation.

We use a combination of counseling, financial assistance, guidance, mentoring, tutoring, supplemental learning, and academic reinforcement. We’ve also started to open up the dialogue between corporations and nonprofits to create a richer talent pipeline for employers. But we know it's just a start.

As we push toward our goal of making higher education accessible for every student—regardless of family income, race, or parental education level—we have a lot of work ahead of us, but we know it's worth it. Prominent economists say that higher education benefits the student earning the degreeas well as their entire communities. And we know that an educated population enables us to have a robust democracy. Instead of cutting higher education budgets, now is the time to invest in our students and fully fund the knowledge economy.

Photo via First Graduate

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