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Washington wages war on higher education

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Demonstrators gather in front of the New York Stock Exchange to protest the GOP’s tax plan on Dec. 19, 2017. (Susan Watts/New York Daily News/TNS)

As a predictor of social mobility, higher education remains the most promising path to entering the middle class in American society — and leading a happy, productive, civically engaged life. Studies have shown that college graduates pay more in taxes, are less likely to need government assistance and generally earn far more over the course of their lifetimes than nongraduates.

Given the advantages inherent in earning a college degree and the need for the United States to remain a leader in an increasingly competitive world, one would expect our politicians to be embracing the ideals and the promise of higher learning. Instead, quite the opposite is occurring.

There is, in fact, a war on higher education in America. Left unchecked, our democracy and our very future are threatened.

To take but a few examples, consider the recently passed GOP tax bill, in which Congress initially proposed eliminating the deductions for charitable contributions. Donor giving is the lifeblood of most colleges and universities, particularly as states continue to reduce education aid — some by as much as 50 percent. Allowing fewer deductions for charitable contributions would have driven a stake through the heart of universities struggling to maintain operating security.   

The final bill did, in fact, double the standard deduction for tax filers, meaning fewer people will be able to itemize deductions, which will likely lead to fewer college donations. Equally hurtful is the limit on state and local tax deductions, which puts even more pressure on states like California to cut funding to higher education.

Meanwhile, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy remains unresolved — and with it, the fate of hundreds of thousands of students who have called America home for most of their lives.

All of this is occurring at a time when polls show higher education is becoming an increasingly partisan issue. A Pew Research poll in July found that 72 percent of Democrats felt colleges and universities were having a positive effect on the country’s direction — while 58 percent of Republicans felt the opposite to be true.

Some might believe that universities have no one but themselves to blame for such negative sentiments, given the seemingly inevitable annual tuition increases. Indeed, even those who support higher education in principle are concerned about the increasing costs.

All of which leads to the question: Is higher education worth it?  

Looked at purely from a financial standpoint, the answer remains a resounding yes, given the many more doors that are opened for college graduates during their careers. Without a doubt, higher education remains our most effective way to lift people out of poverty.

But while career preparation remains an important focus of what universities provide, college education cannot and should not be measured solely by the size of the financial payback.

More important than monetary wealth, higher education provides the moral and ethical clarity that society needs to advance and thrive. Through the study of history, philosophy, literature, liberal arts and more, students develop sophisticated and nuanced perspectives on the issues of the day.

Now is not the time to abandon this country’s historical commitment to higher education — a commitment rooted in the ideal that an educated citizenry is essential if our
constitutional democracy is to be sustained.  

Instead of ending DACA, we should make it easier for immigrant children to become part of the American dream.

Instead of putting up financial roadblocks, our government should work on creative ways to make college more affordable to middle class families.

Instead of penalizing Americans who understand the value of supporting their alma mater, Congress should champion a tax structure to encourage and reward philanthropy.

We should not sit idly by as our government leaders place less value on the lifelong benefits of the university experience. Now is the time to make educated arguments for the common good.

Paul J. Fitzgerald, S.J., is president of the University of San Francisco.

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