01/26/2011 04:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Higher Education: Great State of the Union Material, Even Better Public Policy

As Nick Anderson meticulously pointed out in yesterday's Washington Post, education is the linchpin of good political messaging, especially in a State of the Union address. Higher education has increasingly become the key to achieving the American dream and American prosperity in a global economy and has thus enjoyed constant praise from our presidents in their most public speeches. Young people call on President Obama to not just echo past commitments to education investments, but to back it up with real policy that makes college more affordable and accessible.

President Clinton spoke of a "21st Century revolution in education" that will make "college affordable to all" in his 2000 address to Congress. President Bush stated in 2001 that "the highest percentage increase in our budget should go to our children's education. Education is my top priority." He went on in his 2006 State of the Union to say that "our greatest advantage in the world has always been our educated, hard-working, ambitious people." President Obama put education investment in the forefront of his economic agenda, saying in his 2009 State of the Union that "in a global economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity -- it is a prerequisite." He spoke of "half of the students who begin college never finish" being "a prescription for economic decline, because we know the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow."

Recent presidents have enjoyed some success in delivering on these sweeping rhetorical promises, most notably President Obama's student aid reform law that infused billions of dollars into higher education. But the current debates over discretionary spending are threatening the strength of his resolve to "lead the world in college graduation rates by 2020."

Today, the House of Representatives is expected to pass House Resolution 38, "a resolution to reduce non-security spending to fiscal year 2008 levels or less." If enacted, this spending reduction would mean a 17 percent decrease in federal student financial assistance, including a $1,500 cut to the maximum Pell Grant award, eliminating the opportunity to attend or stay in college for hundreds of thousands of low-income students. The Pell Grant has already plummeted from covering 72 percent of the cost of college in 1976 to around 30 percent today. What happened to that bipartisan commitment to a "revolution in education" or "education is my top priority"? 2008 may not sound like a long time ago or a huge decrease in funding, but we've suffered a horrific recession since then, putting millions out of work and back to school and leaving state governments unable to guard against rising college costs. And a huge chunk of the funds states are spending on higher education -- $2.5 billion -- came from the federal government through the stimulus package, which has run out.

The impacts of our leaders falling short on their education commitments are real and imminent. Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce concluded that by 2018 the U.S. economy will have 22 million new jobs for college-educated workers but that due to decreasing higher education investments, the U.S. is on track to being almost eight million college-educated workers short of filling this workforce capacity. We will be running a deficit of 300,000 college graduates every year from now until 2018. In order to make up the difference and meet President Obama's goal of leading the world in college graduation rates, the U.S. needs to produce 8.2 million college graduates in the next decade, which will require an increase in higher education spending of $158 billion. While the federal government has recently invested about $40 billion into federal aid programs over the next ten years, that still leaves over a $100 billion to be made up for by state governments. But the National Governors Association and National Association of State Budget Officers recently reported that in fiscal year 2010, 36 states cut higher education funding and 31 plan to impose additional cuts in fiscal year 2011. These cuts will only be further exacerbated if the House's spending resolution becomes law of the land.

Higher education prioritization makes for great messaging in the State of the Union, but it makes even better public policy. If job growth through innovation and fiscal responsibility are going to be tonight's theme, then higher education investment needs to be the teeth behind the rhetoric.