College as a right, not just a privilege

September 30, 2007|By Brian K. Johnson

There was a time when the community college was the neglected stepchild within the higher-education family. No longer. Today, big business looks to community colleges as a primary source of the skilled labor necessary to sustain the information economy. Government turns to community colleges to close the education deficit that has the United States lagging other industrialized nations. The National Governors Association is asking four-year colleges and universities to replicate the responsiveness to regional economic needs that has long been standard practice at community colleges.

A consensus is emerging, rooted in the understanding that the United States cannot sustain its economic pre-eminence without a big bump in the percentage of our population attending college. No one is saying that everyone must hold a college degree. But insistent voices are telling us that we must drastically increase the number of workers whose education goes beyond the K-12 years. K-14 must become the new norm, and K-14-plus the new ideal.

This consensus has been a long time coming, and it could become a mandate for the position that access to higher education must be a right available to all. The United States is on the threshold of a social revolution that will enshrine this understanding in legislation, and perhaps in state constitutions.

Maryland has the opportunity to lead this revolution. It is an opportunity we should seize.

Universal access to higher education is a matter of social justice. Far too many of our citizens are being left off the escalator to a middle-class quality of life. And efforts to help lower-income families are falling short, a fact we are acutely aware of at Montgomery College. Each year for the past four years, about 3,000 students who applied for financial aid and whose needs we could not meet did not enroll. Extrapolate our experience nationally and you have a prescription for severe economic polarization, a nation deeply divided between the privileged and the deprived.

Of course, lofty ideals count for far less these days than economic facts. Fortunately, economic realities drive home the same lesson as ethical imperatives. There are signs that higher education for all may be an idea whose time has come:

At least one major-party presidential candidate has proposed a federal push to make our community colleges tuition-free.

Indiana provides full college tuition to students who, beginning in eighth grade, maintain a 2.0 grade point average and stay away from drugs and alcohol.

New Jersey students who graduate in the top 20 percent of their high school pay no community college tuition.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has unveiled a plan to make community college free for all state residents.

Several states are exploring creative ways to increase funding for facilities and need-based scholarships (including forgivable loans).

Looming workforce shortages punctuate the need for expanded access. Each year, the shortage of nurses grows more acute. Our biology labs struggle to find qualified technicians. The National Academy of Engineers tells us that by 2015, we will have no more than one-half the number of engineers to meet projected needs. Shortages in science, technology, engineering and math have costly consequences: The U.S. share of the semiconductor market has shrunk to one-half of what it was in 2001.

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has provided cogent commentary on these trends: "If you can solve the education problem, you don't have to do anything else. If you don't solve the education problem, nothing else is going to matter."

The challenge today is not markedly different from the one we faced after World War II. Then, as now, we needed to take a population that many dismissed as uneducable and turn it into the skilled, imaginative, driven and determined workforce that took our nation to economic heights never before seen and produced a quality of life never before imagined.

Bold action would put Maryland out front on this issue. We could show the way, expanding our tax base by expanding opportunity, fortifying our economy by putting new shoulders to the wheel of economic progress. We have learned by difficult experience that a rising tide lifts all yachts. It is education that lifts all boats.

Maryland is already doing part of what needs to be done to establish postsecondary education as a fundamental right. The state's major expansion of funding for K-12 education - known as the Thornton initiative - aims to prepare more students, especially those in the lower socioeconomic groups, for college. This initiative, however, will not have the full desired impact without a complementary initiative to ensure access to higher education. Unless the state acts to expand access to our community colleges and the University System of Maryland, we're going to leave a lot of students all dressed up with no place to go. The result will be workforce shortages and a damaged economy.

Maryland can do better. The goals at the center of the State Plan for Postsecondary Education leave Maryland one step away from the conclusion that postsecondary education is the right of every Maryland resident. It's time to take the next step.

Brian K. Johnson will be inaugurated president of Montgomery College on Oct. 9. His e-mail is president@montgomerycollege.edu.

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