12/23/2012 10:10 am ET Updated Feb 20, 2013

Don't Let the Clock Run Out on College Opportunity for Young Americans

Weeks of discussions regarding the fiscal cliff and the need to set the country on a sustainable course for future generations are notable for the glaring absence of one national priority: the need to preserve college as a viable option for future generations of young Americans. As we enter into what is almost assuredly months more of budgetary debates, this lack of expressed commitment on the part of either the Obama Administration or Congress is both troubling and mystifying. Isn't one of the core issues of these discussions what exactly are the obligations one generation owes to the next? Furthermore, aren't we today creating problems of national and global security if future generations are undereducated? Finally, from a political view-- wasn't it young people who provided a decisive margin to Democrats in what was expected to be a much closer election? Aren't our nation's youth a critical audience to whom Republicans must retool their current message?

The commitment to making a college degree possible is more than simply articulating support for the Pell Grant program. Life-changing services for low-income Americans that allow them to navigate the complicated college admissions process and make prudent decisions must also be protected. And we must acknowledge the responsibility each generation has to provide the next with the skills necessary to make a living wage in the future workplace.

The clock will soon run out for these young people and their families if policymakers do not stand up to protect education programs, which constitute less than 2 percent of the federal budget as a whole. Nearly every elementary and postsecondary education program remains on the chopping block: Title I, which helps low-income children become college and career ready, IDEA, which prepares children with disabilities to lead fully productive lives, financial aid initiatives, and programs like TRIO and GEAR UP that assist low-income and first-generation students to prepare for and graduate from college.

Policymakers who purport to be laser-focused on long-term economic gain would be wise to ensure that our nation's investment in education continues -- and not just to ensure social justice. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recently documented that countries that increase spending on education boost their social and economic growth. This return on investment occurs not only from increased wages and purchasing power but from the fact that better-educated individuals are generally healthier and rely less on public health and other public benefits.

The U.S. ranks only 14th among developed countries in terms of postsecondary attainment for adults between 25 and 34. And college access and success is particularly elusive for disadvantaged Americans. Currently, less than two-fifths of students from low-income families go straight to college, and many of those are the first in their family to do so. Lacking adequate financial, academic, and other support, they earn bachelor's degrees at far lower rates than their peers. Their failure to complete college limits their future earning potential and their ability to contribute financially (and otherwise productively) to society.

We know that a well-educated and diverse workforce energized by opportunity and the American Dream is essential to building a robust and sustainable economy. Policymakers in Washington must keep the federal investment in education in their sights. As the fiscal cliff countdown continues, low-income, minority, and first-generation students must not be denied educational opportunity simply because political leaders have failed to hear their voices or acknowledge their economic value and social worth.