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Access to Higher Education

We can't just keep talking about the importance of access and affordability. We need to ensure it exists through public policies that support students no matter what type of institution they attend -- public colleges, community colleges or private institutions.
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Arthur O. Eve has changed lives. A tireless advocate of access to higher education, Eve has made sure that deserving students from all walks of the economic spectrum can reach their academic goals. Without Eve's efforts, I would not have had the opportunity to obtain my degrees. I am an alumnus of Marist College who participated in the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) and have greatly benefited from the support of national and state policy focused on access to higher education for all students.

Just ask Meshach Cummings, a student in Union College's HEOP. He expressed his gratitude, as did I, at a recent Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities event that honored Eve's work in establishing programs like HEOP, the Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP) and the Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge (SEEK) program. It was a proud moment for the State of New York, Union College and me, but I couldn't help wondering: How long can colleges and universities continue to provide these kinds of opportunities? And how is higher education making the case for it?

Education in the most industrialized, advanced nation needs to be secured as a fundamental right. Without it, our citizens will be prevented from fully participating in a democracy -- either politically or economically. Education is a public good that we all benefit from. It not only extends to one's income or wealth but to the social, political and communal benefits of having enlightened individuals who have the opportunity to pursue and achieve their passions. Higher education provides opportunity but it can only be realized if colleges and universities are accessible and affordable.

Recently, President Obama launched an initiative that focused on this very issue. This effort encourages colleges, universities and nonprofit organizations to commit themselves to ensuring that students of all backgrounds have an opportunity to pursue their higher education dreams. Union is one of those colleges and under the leadership of President Stephen C. Ainlay, firmly believes in the power of access and affordability. We see it in action here, every day.

Higher education provides opportunities to understand what it means to be in a civic democratic society and how to fully partake in it. It helps individuals "level the playing field" when it comes to information, ensuring that no one party has better knowledge or understanding than another. And although individuals may not always understand how to fully participate in a civic society, they must have the tools to be able to do so. A college education and the ability to gain skills and knowledge offers those tools, allowing individuals to move from small urban settings to become part of larger communities.

Moreover, the cultural, social and educational aspects of an open and accessible institution produce well-rounded individuals who benefit from the interaction with those from different backgrounds. Access to quality education also provides individuals with the means and fundamental tools to participate in a democracy. Students learn where and how to contribute to society. To do this successfully, higher education institutions need to be diligent about programs, scholarships and growing endowments. Colleges need to tap into every available resource, including donors and state and federal funds, to ensure that they provide opportunities to marginalized groups and those that lack adequate financial resources.

State and federal governments need to invest more resources in education -- in particular, in higher education -- to allow people to truly partake in our democratic society. This participation secures our future economically and socially and is a public good that benefits us all. Higher education has the ability to secure the future for areas such as the arts and historical institutions - this is done by ensuring that we have people trained in these fields and interested and enlightened patrons.

Further, education is a tool to help elevate people out of poverty and allows for upward mobility, offering individuals the opportunity to truly partake in a growing knowledge economy. Education is directly correlated to wages earned and wealth. And, government participation would narrow the gap in the stratification of individuals.

One recommendation is to use a scale or sliding approach to how education is funded. Federal and state governments need to consider the cost and type of institution that a student would attend. These factors should then determine financial resource eligibility. In some cases, it would require an increase in state and federal government expenditure on higher education. The return on investment? The retention of graduates, fewer businesses moving out of state and ultimately, economic viability.

We can't just keep talking about the importance of access and affordability. We need to ensure it exists through public policies that support students no matter what type of institution they attend -- public colleges, community colleges or private institutions.

When students attend the institution of their choice through accessibility and affordability programs, it impacts all of society. I was able to realize my dreams by enrolling in an opportunity program. Meshach Cummings has that opportunity today. The key is public policy, which needs to be geared toward helping institutions become more accessible. And when it works, we all win.

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