Higher Education Legislative Priorities: An Open Letter to Newly Elected Representatives and Senators

Dear New Members of the 112th Congress,

I write to congratulate you on your election, to thank you for shouldering this responsibility at a difficult time for our nation, and to ask you to consider supporting some critical legislative priorities related to higher education.

I won't bore you with the usual exhortation about how higher education is a jewel in America's crown. I'm afraid that lately we have been on the national radar screen in negative ways: runaway tuition, a greater emphasis on research than on undergraduate teaching, and lack of response to the needs of the greater society. Like all caricatures, these oversimplifications contain some truth. But the higher education community increasingly is facing these issues more squarely, and I offer for your consideration a few assertions and suggestions for pending and potential legislation that would have a momentous impact on America's ability to remain a major force in the world of our children and grandchildren:

Assertion: More, Not Less, Access to Higher Education Will Characterize the Most Successful Societies in the Future.

Legislative Priority: Improve Access to Higher Education Based on a Combination of Enlightened Student Financial Aid Policies and Incentives for Cost Control in Colleges and Universities.

Ultimately, access to higher education will require both robust and predictable student financial aid and a commitment to reducing the cost -- and price -- of higher education.

There have been many recent arguments about "return on investment" calculations that relate the net price of higher education (i.e., tuition "sticker price" minus student financial aid) to the increment in salary after graduation, but the preponderance of evidence supports the assertion that a college education is a personal as well as a societal economic benefit.

Your predecessors in Congress deserve credit for recently improving the federal student financial aid system and helping to reduce student debt. It would be incredibly short-sighted in this time of economic crisis -- when we need an educated, creative and motivated workforce -- to undo that progress and put postsecondary education further out of reach for a majority of American families.

The longer-term answer, of course, lies not only in increased student financial aid, but in curtailing the rate of rise and eventually reducing the cost of higher education and, in time, its price. Many colleges and universities, particularly public institutions, have done a remarkable job of belt-tightening when cyclical reductions in state funding have occurred. But in the wake of the Great Recession, all colleges and universities must take more vigorous steps in cost containment for the long term. In some instances, however, it is necessary to spend money in order to save money, such as through investments in systems and energy efficiency. Please consider an idea suggested by Professor Ron Ehrenberg of Cornell: a federal matching program in which large, complex universities or consortia of smaller institutions would be eligible for incentive funds to undertake rigorous administrative streamlining and strategic planning initiatives focused on maintaining quality while reducing costs.

Legislative Priority: Reform Immigration Policies that Impact Higher Education, Starting with Implementation of the DREAM Act.

Across the globe, societies are struggling -- and succeeding -- in increasing access to postsecondary education. Look at China, India, Japan, Korea and many other countries that are putting huge resources into obtaining the best higher education for their best students. Look no further than the finest science and engineering graduate programs in the U.S. and you'll find that as many as half of the graduate students in some programs are foreign nationals. The United States is in a critical, global competition for talent and ideas that will determine our long-term prospects as a society.

We need to tap all the talent at our disposal to solve the nation's problems wherever in the world that talent originates. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, in 2003, described the goal of "Secure Borders, Open Doors," and we have been trying to find the correct formula ever since. We need a better balance between national security and maintaining the critical, bidirectional flow of people and ideas.

Please reconsider passage of the DREAM Act. Why would we educate children at public expense from kindergarten through high school and then deny them the ability to pursue higher education because they were brought into the country illegally through no fault of their own? And while we're at it, let's find ways for more of those highly trained foreign nationals in our science and engineering graduate programs to continue to use their talents in the U.S.

Assertion: Universities and Colleges Are Critical to Economic Growth, Innovation and Job Creation.

Legislative Priority: Maintain Research Funding for the Life and Physical Sciences and Engineering.

Look into the origin of any modern advance that has become a new worldwide market, from Internet search engines to pharmaceuticals, and you will find university and corporate research and development, with universities not only making the majority of basic discoveries but also filling the pipeline of talent that feeds corporate research and the development of new products, processes, and services.

In one of their last votes, the 111th Congress wisely passed a three-year reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act for increased research funding to fuel the innovation and invention essential to a strong economy. Now we must ensure that appropriations match the authorization.

As George Will has said, "Today, the prerequisites for economic dynamism are ideas." Don't consign generations of Americans to a deflationary economy because of lack of will to maintain research funding in the life and physical sciences and engineering. Let's keep those ideas flowing and the pipelines full of people capable of and interested in discovery.

Assertion: A Broad Understanding of Our World and Its History, People, Cultures and Values Is Our Best Approach to a Secure Future.

Legislative Priority: Halt the Erosion of Support for the Humanities.

As I peruse the headlines and news alerts, it seems that the main strains that separate people around the globe -- often violently -- are related to poor understanding of each other's cultures, languages, histories, religions, and values. From the "person on the street" in our cities and towns to the soldiers on battlefields in Afghanistan, our best hope for a secure future is understanding and engagement, not just military strategy and strength. The public reactions to the tragic recent shootings in Tucson underscore the increasingly urgent need to communicate more effectively, to listen before we pontificate, to connect with each other, using skills and knowledge gained from a deeper understanding of the world and its people.

The National Endowment for the Humanities is one of the very few federal research agencies that have seen appropriations reduced substantially, in this case by over a third in inflation-adjusted dollars in the last decade and a half. Why? Because of political and culture-wars-related backlash in previous Congresses, with neither Democrats nor Republicans recognizing the huge losses our nation will incur without a robust scholarly community in the humanities.

When military leaders talk of winning the hearts and minds of the populace in another country, they are talking about understanding language, culture, values, religion and history. And global cultural understanding -- so essential to our security, our economic viability and our children's future -- is tied closely to our ability to connect, person to person. Just as surely, the State Department, Department of Homeland Security and intelligence agencies will only be as effective as their analysts are educated in the humanities.

I commend these four overarching legislative priorities to you as critical investments in our nation's future and the legacy we will pass on to succeeding generations. Thanks for considering them and for doing what you do.