Higher Education and the American Dream

It's a fair assessment to say that the business model of higher education in this country is broken. How we reached this point is complicated, and the biggest casualty of this sad state of affairs may be the American dream itself.

A college degree has long been the ticket to upward mobility, a primary way to contribute to the greater good and make a better life for self and family. However, access to the opportunities afforded by this educational accomplishment seems further and further out of reach.

Families understandably suffer from sticker shock when they see the cost of tuition, and reports of the levels of student loan debt being carried by graduates are alarming.

In short, a great many American families are deciding, before they even give a college education a chance, that it is too expensive, not worth the sacrifice, and not a worthy return on investment.

So, how do we fix it?

Philanthropy has always been and remains one of the clearest solutions to our ailing educational system, and I would say it is one of the wisest investments that can be made in individual potential and our collective future as a nation.

I was reminded of this recently while speaking at Davidson College for the 25th anniversary celebration of the Bonner Scholars Program.

Created in 1990 by the Bonner Foundation of Princeton, N.J., the Bonner Scholars Program provides access to college students who have little or no means to pay for college and an opportunity for them to become civically engaged during their college careers. I was asked to speak on this occasion because Centre College is one of the 87 American colleges and universities that comprise the National Bonner Program.

Plainly stated, the Bonner Foundation has promoted access to colleges by pouring millions of dollars into scholarship opportunities for students from families displaying need. In the process, Bonner sends a signal to those from less-advantaged homes that students from all socioeconomic levels can be at places like Centre, or Davidson, or Berea--and the other 84 campuses they support.

Bonner's guiding principle is "Access to Education, Opportunity to Serve," and it resonates well with what places like Centre are trying to accomplish. We want to train citizen-leaders who believe in and work for those things that are good and in the interest of all; who never give up on people, though they may have been given reason to do so; who are strong, but ever mindful of those who are weak; who won't settle for anything less than a life well lived; and who remind themselves daily that they are blessed.

This kind of philanthropy--giving that makes possible student scholarships--remains a beacon on the hill that sends a signal to young people that they can make their way to college. It is also a foundation stone for those who wish to live in a democratic society that values freedom and choice and opportunity.

I speak from experience.

Thanks to the generosity of our donors, Centre College has recently launched two significant scholarship programs in as many years. The Grissom Scholars Program provides access to high-achieving first-generation college students. The Lincoln Scholars Program is designed for those students who have the capacity and deep desire to change the world.

These two new programs, along with Bonner, lock arms with several other scholarship programs already in place at Centre; namely, the Posse Scholars Program and the Brown Fellows Program. This family of scholarships provides encouragement to countless students and opportunity for hundreds each year.

The investment by our donors in these programs runs to the tens of millions. The return, to borrow an advertising tagline, has and will continue to be priceless, allowing young men and women to make a profound difference for good in their places of work, their communities, our nation, and across the globe.

At my core, I remain an optimist about our nation with its many flaws, as well as our world with its numerous challenges and dangers. I feel the same about American higher education, broken though its business model may be.

It can be fixed, but only one college or university at a time, and only at those places that are prepared to plan strategically and execute smartly. Then, with the help of those who are blessed by the goodness of this nation, we may yet be able to regain the quality of access -- high opportunity, if you will -- and align it with quality of experience -- high achievement.

When remarkable vision is coupled with remarkable giving, the American dream has a chance. This is an opportunity that must not be missed.