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The Promise of American Higher Education

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As the country endures a contentious election season, higher education is increasingly finding a cozy home amid national headlines. After all, college is a big deal. College graduates work in every sector of the American economy, and the research engines incubated within our universities generate a wealth of ideas and innovations that have an enormous impact on our lives.

But the central questions are critical of our efforts: Will student debt bury a generation? Is college a bad investment?

While many debate the value of a college degree, the reality is clear: It is more important than ever to possess the knowledge and skills acquired on a college campus.

Take the job market as a primary example. The unemployment rate for those with a four-year degree was 4.1 percent in August compared with 8.8 percent for those without a college education, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Also, as was recently argued in The Atlantic, professions that have not traditionally required a degree are now finding they must rapidly keep pace with new technological advancements and evolving levels of expertise. This includes the critical thinking and complex reasoning skills honed in college. Industries from insurance to nursing to manufacturing are increasingly seeking college graduates to meet the demands of a dynamic and global economy.

So if a college education is indispensable, the challenge as I see it is how to make it more accessible. The first step is to get more people -- young and old -- onto the right path toward a quality college degree. The next is to track and ensure our students cross the finish line.

Recently in Washington, D.C., I joined together with presidents and chancellors from non-profit colleges and universities as a part of the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment, which I chair. Convened last year, the members of this Commission have been tasked with bringing constructive approaches to the table that will make college more attainable in America. In the months to come, as we move from discovery to our collective call to action, I will be eager to stand among those sharing our work on a wider scale.

Another pressing challenge is keeping tuition costs down and, analogously, reducing dependence on student loans. Editorial pages can sometimes fail to mention the whole story. At Ohio State -- where $10,000 in annual in-state tuition pays for a top 20 public degree -- our students receive one of the best educational values in the country. Further, in order to expand additional and less expensive pathways to success, the University is partnering with community colleges to provide a more seamless transition from two- to four-year degree programs. And, in terms of scholarships and financial aid, Ohio State recently allocated an additional $50 million over four years on top of our annual $100 million in award money to incoming students.

Making these strides in an era of limited public funding is no small chore. That is why we have been pioneering innovative financial strategies to position ourselves better amid economic uncertainty. The University recently agreed to lease its campus parking operations for $483 million -- boosting our endowment by 20 percent overnight. And last year we became the nation's first public university to issue $500 million of century bonds, which will help fund capital projects, such as our $1.1 billion Wexner Medical Center expansion.

To be sure, American higher education is a diverse ecosystem, comprising institutions of all sizes, price tags, and mission statements. Dartmouth College is not The Ohio State University is not LaGuardia Community College. A one-size-fits-all solution may not be the right prescription. Instead, we will need pragmatic approaches and new ways of thinking to tackle multifaceted modern demands.

A constructive national dialog can help along the way. But we cannot come to expect that from the cacophony of an election season in the era of 24-hour news. As faculty and administrators, the best we can do is to be bold in advocating the value of higher learning in the 21st century. Because while American colleges and universities differ in many ways, we do converge on one collective promise: To educate the generation of today for the challenges of tomorrow. And that is a promise my colleagues and I intend to keep.