Two of the authors of this piece are Democrats and the other is a Republican. We all agree that adequate funding for higher education should not be a partisan issue. Here is why.
By any measure, higher education offers pathways for career opportunities and a more financially secure life style. In our immediate area, Fayette, Spalding, and Lamar counties are particularly fortunate to be the home of several solid public higher education institutions: The University of Georgia Griffin Campus and Southern Crescent Technical College in Griffin; Gordon State College in Barnesville; and Clayton State University in Peachtree City.
These institutions of higher learning play pivotal roles in community workforce development, enhancing community economic development, and enabling higher incomes. Workers with a college education make $1,173 on average weekly, while those without a high school degree average only $520. With our increasingly technological society, this salary differential will only widen.
Benefits are not just financial. These educational institutions also offer venues for life-long learning, arts, and culture. Public colleges and universities clearly make life better for all of us, black or white, Democrat or Republican, rich or poor.
For these higher education institutions to best prepare our students, they must provide contemporary and state of the art facilities and equipment and competitive staff and faculty salaries to attract and retain world-class educators. Additionally, budgetary investments in these institutions have high monetary returns on investment via helping attract and launch new businesses, creating jobs, and bringing vitality to the community.
Access to these institutions has become ever more difficult for many as the cost higher education has become out of reach for many Georgians. Others have ended up with burdensome student loans that drain a student’s finances for years after graduating.
To a large degree, these rising costs are a direct result of state legislative budget cuts during the recent recession years that have not been fully restored by the legislature and have been passed on to students through tuition increases. These political actions did not make higher education more efficient, the Georgia Legislature simply transferred the burden to our younger citizens.
Forcing students to pay more is counterproductive for Georgia and society in general. Making higher education more affordable is central to having a better educated citizenship equipped for tomorrow’s workforce demands, a strong and vibrant democracy, and a better quality of life for all Georgians. Specifically, if we look at national figures, it is obvious that the better educated states have a significantly higher family income versus less educated states.
For example, according to US Census data (2011-2015, American Communities Survey): Maryland, the state having the highest Median Family Income, is also the state with the third highest percentage of bachelor’s degrees; Arkansas and Mississippi have the lowest income (49 and 50) of all states, and also have among the lowest educational college graduation rates (48 and 49).
Georgia is 32nd on income, 23rd on college graduates, but 40th on high school graduation rates. We can do better. Now is the time to recognize the value and importance of education for Georgians. The solution to the financial dilemma is two-fold: Make higher education more efficient/effective, and return state investment to pre-recession levels.
State higher education funding has decreased from $8,500/student in 2008, versus a little over $7,000 now.
Some options to cut costs for higher education can be enacted right now by the educational institutions themselves. Actions that can be taken immediately include expanding high school student dual enrollment programs, transferring Technical College courses to two- and four-year degree program offering institutions, transferring courses from a two-year associate’s program to a four-year degree program, and providing for ease of course transfer from one 4-year state college/university to another.
Educational investment will bring knowledge, enlightenment, and life changing opportunity to our communities, while increasing income levels substantially. Higher education committees of our legislature must strengthen budgetary investments in our higher education institutions, especially in view of our currently booming economy.
Cutbacks may well be necessary in times of recession, but now is the time for state investment in our younger generation. If not now, when?
Bill Lightle, a retired Fayette County school teacher, is the Democratic candidate for State Senate District 16. Dr. Jerry Arkin, retired, was the UGA Griffin Campus administrator. Jack Bernard is the former Chair of the Jasper County Commission and Republican Party. All three are Fayette County residents.