Friday, August 23, 2013

Does College Pay Off? For Whom?

In our consumer-oriented society, the President proposes to make higher education more cost-effective and colleges more accountable for the quality of their product.

His proposals will be applauded by the Left and denounced on the Right, but a more basic question will be unanswered: Beyond individual benefits and upward mobility, what does America get?

As someone who would have never gone to college without taxpayer assistance, I can offer some evidence on that question.

For 166 years the City College of New York, from which I graduated, has offered free education to such as me, and what has the nation received in return?

Starting with George Washington Goethals 1889, who supervised building the Panama Canal, its graduates contributed to society the polio vaccine (Dr. Jonas Salk ’34), the Internet (my cousin Leonard Kleinrock ’57) along with nine Nobel Laureates in the Sciences and Social Sciences, a Supreme Court Justice (Felix Frankfurter ‘02), Colin Powell ’58 and literally many thousands of high achievers in scholarship, teaching professions and the arts (from my classmates Paddy Chayevsky to the creator of the Godfather, Mario Puzo).

The list of familiar names is very long, but the unfamiliar count for even more: those who worked in obscurity to make American society more civilized and humane as a result of the higher education that was given them when their families could not afford it.

When I went back for the 50th anniversary of my graduation, the names had changed from mostly Jewish, Italian and Irish to African-American, Asian and Eastern European, the tuition was no longer entirely free but the spirit had not changed.

“A higher education,” says the White House today, “is the single most important investment students can make in their own futures.”

It’s also the best investment the nation can make in its own.

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