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Value of higher education should be met with public investment

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The Appalachian Online

In the last year, the issue of free college has become a more prominent part of public discourse than at any other time I can remember.

President Obama got things rolling with his proposal in January to provide free community college under certain conditions.

Since then, other lawmakers have proposed bills that would make college free, or at least more accessible. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders proposed a bill in May, and just last week a group of congressional Democrats issued their own bill to increase access to certain institutions.

If these moves can be translated into some real momentum for this issue, this could become an important topic in the 2016 presidential election.

Already there have been criticisms of the proposals that have been put forward which range from costs to particular defects of certain methods. In many cases, these criticisms are valuable contributions to the discussion over the best way of making college affordable and accessible.

There is one potentially destructive criticism, however, that needs to be addressed up-front: the threat of “socialism.”

It came up when we were debating health care and it will almost certainly rise up again if the movement for free college continues with any sort of strength.

That type of rhetoric needs to be called out for what it is: an attempt to derail a conversation on an important public issue in order to preserve the status quo, and perhaps even regress.

Understanding the need for sometimes significant public investment in certain areas of life does not make one a socialist.

We live—or like to say we live—in a democratic society. Part of living in that type of society is saying that certain things should be provided collectively to ensure that citizens can have equality of opportunity, particularly for citizens who are most disadvantaged.

And it is not as if this is some kind of charity work. Universities make a number of economic and civic contributions to society.

For the economic benefits, we need look no further than our own UNC system. A report from the UNC system released in February found that the system added $27.9 billion to the state economy between 2012 and 2013.

On a broader social level, higher education gives students the knowledge and helps them develop the reasoning skills to take part in public debates, which is essential for democracy.

The public value of education is clear, but recent data highlights just how critical a robust defense of the public nature of higher education is at this moment in time.

Writing for the American Council on Education in 2012, researcher Thomas Mortensen noted that state funding for education has been declining since the 1980s. A continuation of these trends means that  “average state fiscal support for higher education will reach zero by 2059, although it could happen much sooner in some states and later in others,” Mortensen writes.

In light of this reality, it is time to have a serious, sustained discussion about how to reverse these trends. We must see to it that the public value higher education is met with appropriate public investment.

Kevin Griffin, a junior journalism major from Madison, is an opinion writer.

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