Keeping the promise of educational opportunity

11-24-2009

Governor Jennifer Granholm’s campaign to restore state funding for the Michigan Promise Scholarship program began last week at a student rally here at Michigan State. Her tour has taken her to other campuses around Michigan since then.

The loss of $120 million in financial aid to some 100,000 Michigan undergraduates this year is distressing for many reasons, not the least of which is the likelihood that higher education could rise beyond the financial reach of more Michigan students. Without higher education, these individuals are denied the opportunity for more fulfilling, productive, and prosperous lives. And we will all be poorer for that––the whole point of public education, after all, is the common benefit from extending such opportunities to all.

In the mid-19th century, in the midst of even more convulsive civil and economic strife than today, nobody had to contribute public land to help establish public universities. But they did, and we are wealthy beyond their imaginings for their foresight.

At MSU, we’re doing what we can to help plug the gap created by the loss of the Michigan Promise Scholarship, including diverting federal stimulus program dollars toward student grants and tuition reduction. (Read the news release here.) But these are only partial and stopgap measures.

Having made substantial investments in institutional financial aid in recent years, next year we will be far less able to render such assistance given the likelihood that no federal funds will be available to make up for what is expected to be even further diminished state support for higher education. (For more, visit the MSU Shaping the Future Web site.)

For me personally, the loss of the Michigan Promise Scholarship stands in stark contrast to the national willingness to support research and student financial aid programs that existed for preceding generations, mine included.

I’m a first-generation college student who came of age in an era of national mobilization after the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957. Academic and scientific institutions enjoyed increased funding for mathematics, science, and engineering programs, and new financial aid, fellowship, and other opportunities were made available to students. This came on top of the huge advance in higher education access created by the GI Bill after World War II.

The fruits of that generation’s willingness to follow through on the promise of national security via educational attainment didn’t end with the landing on the moon. Not only did America thrive in those years of investment, but it continues to enjoy an educational and research infrastructure second to none in the world.

It is to Michigan State and our sister research universities in the United States that the world’s outstanding students and scientists come to pursue their careers—for now. Many nations and institutions around the world are working diligently and investing heavily today to step into our place.

Education and research leadership are ours to lose, with all the threats to economic and national security that loss implies. This is our new Sputnik wake-up call. Can we promise this generation we will hear it?

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