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Gazette Premium Content GUEST COLUMN: Rapidly changing higher education landscape requires some tough decisions from within

By Gene Budig and Alan Heaps Published: March 26, 2014

By Gene Budig and Alan Heaps

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Those who question the fundamental value of a college degree need to stand back and accept undisputed facts.

The truth is the worth of a college degree is rising. Today, young adults with just a high school diploma earn 62 percent of the typical salary of college graduates. In 1965, those with just a high school diploma earned 81 percent of the salary of college graduates.

And this is only part of the story as told by the Pew Research Center and reported to the country by The Associated Press.

Ninety percent of young workers say their college degree has already or will pay off and 86 percent of those who borrowed money agree.

The Associated Press reported that the medium salary of young workers is $45,500 for those with a four-year college degree or more; $30,000 for a two-year degree or some college; and $28,000 for high school graduates.

Self-worth is very high among college and university graduates, regardless of institutional locations.

Clearly, recent state funding for higher education reflects more and more the findings such as those by Pew. According to the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University, in the current fiscal year, state funding for colleges and universities is up in 40 states and overall by 5.7 percent.

That will make up for some of the draconian cuts when per-student state funding dropped by a national average of 28 percent during the recession.

A majority of state legislators now believe that tuition increases have been excessive and unfair to middle- and low-income parents. This is promising news on the economic and education fronts, but more is needed.

Tough budget decisions will be the order of the day for years to come. The balance of education funding with other needs will continue to receive scrutiny with a special eye on accountability, creativity, revenue generation and economic development.

But as we make those critical decisions, let us have the full picture.

Gordon Gee is unmatched in experience and accomplishment in American higher education. The president/chancellor of West Virginia University (twice), the University of Colorado, Ohio State University (twice), Brown University and Vanderbilt University commented for the column on the importance of state colleges and universities.

"Universities exist to teach and learn. Without putting our students first, we suffer the consequences of intellectual paralysis and, indeed, focus on the wrong things. Students are the reason we exist. The passage of knowledge is our gift to them. The challenge of new ideas is their gift to us. We must always remember this core mission of the institution.

"Universities, in my view, are the last solid place in which we can find an avenue to return to discussions about our nation's future, where ideas are welcomed, differences noted and solutions found. Our universities, and particularly great land-grant universities, now must forge ahead to create dialogue. We need to create solutions. And we need to provide leadership in a time of uncertainty.

"Universities exist to create jobs. They are economic drivers for their states. We need to lead the initiatives that are critical to the future of all states and their residents. The world comes to states through the university and the states go to the world through the university. The future of every state is dependent on its educated citizenry. We have the ability to build an economic base in which jobs and opportunity are created. That is the real calling of the university - particularly as a land-grant institution.

"But this is a time of needed change. It is time for universities across the country to think about things differently. We are at a crossroads. There is a $17 trillion national debt, a $1 trillion student loan overhang and limited state resources. The question we need to be asking is: How do we increase quality but do so while moderating costs? Universities will continue to survive. But those who approach things differently, who hold themselves accountable to find solutions and be creative - they are the universities that will thrive. Universities need to be good stewards and committed partners in their success."

Well said, President Gee.

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Gene Budig is past president/chancellor of Illinois State University, West Virginia University and the University of Kansas and of Major League Baseball's American League. Alan Heaps is a former vice president of the College Board in New York City.

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