“The link between democracy and higher education has long been embedded in the American story.”
That’s how co-authors Eastern Kentucky University President Michael Benson and Hal Boyd open the first chapter of “College for the Commonwealth: A Case for Higher Education in American Democracy,” newly published by University Press of Kentucky.
Benson and Boyd, a former special assistant to Benson at EKU now serving as a Fellow of the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University, where he also teaches part time in the philosophy department, build their case for the value of higher education with examples set by four higher education institutions in Kentucky and by citing fortuitous decisions by American leaders in generations past.
Benson pointed to how EKU is responding through its nationally prominent aviation program to address an acute shortage of airline pilots and mechanics. He also cited the University of Kentucky’s statewide impact on rural health care, Berea College’s nationally unique work-for-tuition model and Centre College’s heavy emphasis on study abroad.
“Colleges and universities in the Commonwealth have evolved to serve an important prosocial function within the state and community,” the authors write. “They fill gaps in services often missed by the state or passed over by the market. These entities and their services act as essential institutional anchors in the broad mix of civil society institutions that help support a well-functioning republic.”
Add to that the collateral benefits that higher education institutions bring to the communities and regions they serve: employment, cultural enrichment, entertainment and, most importantly, a well-informed and healthier citizen who’s more apt to participate in civic life.
“Studies show that the more education you acquire, the more inclined you are to vote, to volunteer, to run for office, to have a better quality of life, and to be engaged in civic dialogue,” Benson said. “The more education you have, the less dependent you are on state and federal services.”
Kentucky has experienced some of the largest cuts to higher education appropriations in the nation in recent years, leading the authors to write that “a college education is increasingly considered a private benefit but those who believe it should be treated as a consumption tax, where those who use it pay for it. Given the strains on state budgets across our country, we certainly understand the argument.”
Benson argues, though, that times are never so difficult, the financial challenges never so great to sacrifice public higher education. In their book, he and Boyd pointed to two prominent examples in American history when leaders saw past the perils at hand to invest in post-secondary education and the nation’s future.
A year into the Civil War and just seven weeks before its bloodiest battle at Antietam, President Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 that established land-grant universities in every state. Then, in 1944, in the midst of World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law the G.I. Bill, enabling military veterans to further their education and find gainful employment.
“As a democratic republic, America was an experiment founded upon the need for an educated populace and the idea that had at its core a commitment to the fact that the one thing that changes your life and makes you a better person is education,” Benson said. “Are we making the case that what we offer is the one panacea to every single ill facing our state, our society and our nation?”
In his review of the book, historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Daniel Walker Howe said the authors “present a convincing case for why higher education needs and deserves public support. Their argument is based on Kentucky, but its lessons are as applicable to the United States as a whole.”
Lindsey Apple, author of “The Family Legacy of Henry Clay: In the Shadow of a Kentucky Patriarch,” called the “thought-provoking” book “a must-read for political and corporate leaders. It might convince them that the old adage ‘you get what you pay for’ applies to education, too.”
In his foreword for the book, Dr. E. Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University, writes that “it is no accident” that the authors used the term “Commonwealth” in the book title. “In their capable hands, the word does double duty: The authors remind us of the enormously positive impact that higher education has had on America’s shared democracy and prosperity, and simultaneously they make a compelling case for reinvestment in higher education.
“The authors are very eloquent on both counts,” Gee continued. “Higher education does, indeed, contribute substantially to our ‘common wealth’ in each of our states and across all our society.”
Benson, in his sixth year at the helm of EKU, previously served as president of Snow College (2001-06) and Southern Utah University (2006-13).