Column: Yes, college is a good thing for America and Americans

Although a majority of Americans overall (55 percent) think college is a good thing, the fact that a significant and growing part of our population doesn't is alarming.
Published July 27 2017
Updated July 27 2017

If you've ever stayed up late watching old movies, you've likely witnessed this scene or one like it.

A platoon of young men is thrown together to suffer through basic training and then combat. In the process, the Jewish kid from Brooklyn and the farmboy from Alabama become friends. The Detroit factory worker and the drugstore clerk from L.A. learn they can count on each other when the chips are down.

That scene played out countless times in America during the mid 20th century, when the United States had compulsory military service. Many who served during that time carried into civilian life their experiences of learning how to get along.

My point here is not to make a case for reinstating the draft; rather, it is this: At a time our country seems more divided than ever, America's colleges and universities still offer young people an opportunity to find common ground and grow together — two things on which the very future of the nation may depend.

The need to point this out crystallized for me with the recent release of new findings from the Pew Research Center showing that a majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58 percent) believe colleges and universities are bad for the country.

Although the poll shows a majority of Americans overall (55 percent) still think college is a good thing, the fact that a significant and growing part of our population doesn't is alarming.

The poll did not indicate why that group thinks so poorly of higher education. I will hazard a guess: At least some of the negative sentiment almost surely stems from a growing perception that college campuses have become places where free speech is stifled and students "hide" from harsh words and hard ideas in safe spaces.

I will refrain from wading into that argument, other than to say that perhaps we pointy-headed professors need to do a better job of explaining ourselves and the positions we take, and perhaps we as consumers of news media should sharpen our critical-thinking skills. In this age of social media and shouting pundits, a little bit of communication goes a long way.

In that spirit, I would prefer to talk about a way forward.

If we as a nation are to regain common ground, I can think of no better place to begin that conversation than higher education. Still a shining example the world over of one of the many things the United States does well, America's colleges and universities remain places where people from virtually every background imaginable come together to meet, share ideas, learn to question authority (something our country's founders were quite good at, I might add), solve problems and better themselves, both intellectually and economically.

Our land-grant universities are especially bright examples of this. Rooted in Abraham Lincoln's notion that higher education should be available to everyone — not just the privileged few — land-grant institutions continue to offer a way up for millions of students every year. I have worked at four of them.

In a July 10 column in the Washington Post, Jeffrey Selingo wrote about Money magazine's latest "Best Colleges for Your Money" rankings, which highlight schools that perform well in the area of economic mobility — helping students from less affluent backgrounds move to a higher socioeconomic level. Schools Selingo highlighted included the College of New Jersey, the University of California, Riverside, and, I am happy to report, my own institution, the University of Florida.

These are schools, in other words, where students from well-to-do families rub elbows with those working their way up the socioeconomic ladder. It is, however, just one form of the diversity that is so valuable to our nation.

My own campus is a case in point. Here, and on thousands of other campuses around the country, these scenes happen again and again: A combat veteran using his GI Bill sits next to a young woman in a hijab. A single mother working to give her children a brighter future shares a lab bench with the daughter of an investment banker from West Palm Beach. A young man from a fifth-generation ranching family heads for a lecture hall and parks his scooter next to the daughter of a teacher and a police officer.

Like the soldiers in that old war movie, they found common ground: the desire to make themselves, their country and their world, better.

Let's not let them down. Support higher education. Urge your elected officials to do the same. Colleges and universities are not only good for America, they are America.

Kent Fuchs is president of the University of Florida. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.