Investing in Education Is Key to America's Future Success

Lawmakers should follow Lincoln’s example in their commitment to investing in education.

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Vartan Gregorian is the president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and co-convener of the June 25 conference at the Library of Congress celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act and the National Academy of Sciences.

Today, while we appear to be a society painfully divided on so many critical issues, we claim to be resolutely united in our commitment to the success of our nation and its future. It is helpful to remind ourselves that our country is certainly no more divided than it was during the Civil War, and yet, it was in the midst of that great conflict that President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Act of 1862, which established the land-grant colleges that now form the backbone of our public university system. Hence, the time has certainly come to ask ourselves if we, as a nation, can do what Lincoln did: See past our differences to invest in our future. Do we have Lincoln's faith, foresight, and the fiscal fortitude essential to educating the citizens and leaders we will need to keep our nation competitive in the globalized and knowledge-based economy of the 21st century? We have come to a crossroads and must decide which way we want to go.

I know that's a difficult message to try to get across in the current political climate. After all, the partisan political gap has nearly doubled in the past 25 years. The Pew Research Center recently reported that the "values gap" between Republicans and Democrats is wider than gender, age, race, or class divides. Indeed, a national poll sponsored by Carnegie Corporation of New York this month shows that more than half of all Americans (53 percent) believe that substantive bipartisan legislation cannot be passed in Washington today. Given these facts, one must admit that any significant national investment faces a hard road.

Still, the problems we face, particularly in regard to higher education, are not going to go away. Access to college, the cost of higher education, the relevance of curricula both to real world markets and to human aspirations are questions that desperately need discussion but also require answers that will have a positive impact on people's lives. Towards that end, after the 2012 election, when the president and Congress refocus on reviving our economy, putting people to work, and ensuring our global competitiveness, a critical element of this economic agenda should focus on addressing the challenges facing our colleges and universities, and our students.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Foreign STEM Graduates Get Green Cards?]

American history has proven that personal and public investment in college and knowledge yields huge dividends. During the past 150 years, the United States emerged as an industrial and economic giant, democratized education through the land-grant and public university system, and became a global leader in science. During this time, continued growth transformed American society and kept the nation strong. It produced a new class of wealthy industrialists, a prosperous middle class, and provided opportunity for all Americans, including generations of immigrants. It also created the world's first sustained upwardly mobile labor force.

This investment continued during the 20th century. Congress created the National Science Foundation in 1950. After the shock of Sputnik, the nation's investment in nondefense research surged six-fold from 1960 to 1966. The GI Bill opened the doors of colleges and universities to countless returning World War II veterans. Then came Fulbright scholarships, the development of community colleges, federal loan grant guarantees, and subsidy programs and Pell Grants. The list goes on, but one thing remains constant: Those who created and supported these advances did not see these as mere expenditures. These were long-term investments occasioned by a belief that America had a role to play as a global leader and did not mean to relinquish that status. In that pursuit, education was always seen as the key to America's success.