Bush's budget leaves college students behind

By Ronald R. Thomas

Special to The Times

Guest columnist

The same administration that seeks to leave no child behind has proposed a budget that will leave many students without access to higher education while it significantly increases spending on security.

President Bush has proposed budget cuts of $773 million in pre-college education programs, in addition to earlier changes in the Pell Grant college-aid program that left 80,000 students no longer eligible for such grants.

Now, students and families seeking to fund their education with a Federal Perkins Loan will be even harder hit as well: The Bush administration wants to eliminate that self-sustaining program entirely.

Started in 1958 under President Dwight Eisenhower, Perkins loans were the first federal assistance program dedicated specifically for higher education. Perkins currently provides low-interest loans to more than 600,000 students at 1,796 colleges across the country. It is one of the most popular and successful government programs of any kind. But not with this administration.

While America can still boast the very best higher-education system in the world, our preeminence is vulnerable.

We have a tradition in America that an appropriate educational choice should be available for everyone rather than a few, and that there be an opportunity fit for every need and for everyone with a dream of self-improvement.

This has been a treasured social contract between the nation and the individual, an American dream for the realization of personal potential and the advancement of the public good at the same time. No longer.

In recent years, we have lost this vision of education's role in performing the public good. This is not only a mistake; it is a very present danger.

There was a time when our nation recognized higher education as the key to our future, when we made the great sacrifice of investing in the GI Bill and making a college education accessible to a generation of veterans when they returned from wars abroad.

In those days, the great economic engine of the American Century emerged from an unflinching commitment to access for all to higher education. We knew then, and we learned again, that a good education was a matter of national defense.

Today, we do not regard higher education so seriously. Now we consider it a consumer good rather than a public good. Finances prevent many first-generation families, and too often students of color, from entering colleges and universities that will challenge them and enable them to become engaged citizens leading productive lives. We are creating a dangerous, two-tiered class society and the gap between the two is growing ever more vast and unbridgeable.

This is nothing less than a matter of national security, a silent class war that ravages not only our economy but our cultural fabric.

Today, when budgets are written, we hear a great deal about the higher priority of maintaining the security of the homeland. But we must remember that true security is based on understanding as well as power. An uninformed obsession with security is the breeding ground of fear, and fear is the thing we should fear most. "Security," Shakespeare writes hauntingly in "Macbeth," "is mortals' greatest enemy."

The Council for Aid to Education called the situation of underfunding higher education, where access is increasingly limited to a few, "a time bomb ticking under the nation's social and economic foundations."

That was in 1997. That bomb is ticking louder and threatening the security of the homeland more imminently in the budget the administration submitted to Congress last month.

Thomas Jefferson warned us more than 200 years ago with prophetic words: "Of all the views ... [of universal education] none is more important, none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people safe, as they are the ultimate guardians of their own liberty."

I agree with Jefferson. If education is our security, our safeguard, it is also our last best hope.

A nation truly concerned with its own safety must provide adequate funding so that choice and access remain the foundations of our educational superiority. We must ensure young people can choose where to pursue their education and allow their talent — not their place of origin, their race, or their financial means — to be the foundation of their futures.

The failure to do so may be the greatest threat to the security of our homeland. If we are unwilling to fund an education system that prepares engaged and educated citizens, the next century will not be another American Century: It will be the reign of terror we inflict upon ourselves. We will all be left behind.
Ronald R. Thomas is president of the University of Puget Sound, based in Tacoma.

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