The challenge: educate our 'emerging majority'

By: David R. Smith, Texas Tech University System
Austin American-Statesman
September 21, 2004

Solutions to today's problems are frequently found in history's lessons. Sixty years ago, in the summer of 1944, Congress passed the "GI Bill of Rights" in anticipation of the conclusion of World War II and the return of millions of veterans. The legislation changed American society profoundly by providing the higher education that for the first time opened doors to the middle class for millions of families.

Most of the 2 million veterans who used the GI Bill to gain an education were "first generation" college students who benefited from the vision and gratitude of a nation.

Before the GI Bill, higher education was an inheritance of the privileged few. Working-class students could not expect to get an education and aspire to a middle-class lifestyle. But the bill leveled the playing field for students from various backgrounds. An unanticipated outcome was the revitalization of higher education, as universities and colleges upgraded faculties to meet the demand for capacity and quality.

As a result, engineers and business entrepreneurs flowed into the marketplace. The return on the federal government's initial $14 billion investment in educational benefits for veterans was multi-dimensional. The nation experienced a more vibrant economy and a blossoming of new developments in science and health that have benefited generations of Americans. Significantly higher wages resulted in increased tax revenue which, in turn, helped solidify the foundation of our Social Security program.

We now confront a new challenge as daunting as that of 60 years ago. Demographers point out that Texas is rapidly becoming a Hispanic-majority state. The challenge is that Hispanic and African American students traditionally have participated in higher education at lower rates. Leaders in business and education see the inevitability of this shifting demographic trend and sense the urgency for a swift and bold response. This new "emerging majority" must be educated if Texas is to maintain a healthy, growing economy. A return to the hallmarks of the GI Bill of Rights may well be in order.

If the educational situation we face today is similar to 1944, what so far has been the response of State and federal government to this challenge? The TEXAS Grant program is the most promising step the state has made in many years, and thousands of academically prepared students from working-class families have pursued a higher education as a result of the program. But because of recent economic downturns, the TEXAS Grant program was under-funded in the last session, resulting in thousands of student lacking financial aid to go to college.

Additionally, formula funding to accommodate growth within our colleges and universities experienced a similar fate. And at the federal level, Pell grants have not kept pace with the rising costs of higher education.

Throughout the nation in recent years, public funding for higher education has been cut so deeply that their "public" identity as they seek alternate sources of financial support. Some have succumbed to disturbing trends where access has become increasingly limited only to the most affluent.

Is there hope that this nation and our state will step up to create a new "GI Bill" and invest in a population new to public higher education? Or will we fail to realize the similarities of these times and the lessons of history?

Let's make this personal for a moment: If we don't adequately educate our young, diverse workforce, who will keep the economy afloat as those of us in the largely white, baby-boomer generation begin to retire with expectations that society will support us long past the time we cease to significantly contribute to the economy?

The only solution is for the state to invest now in the future workforce, and we can start with fully funding the TEXAS Grant program and formula funding that enables colleges and universities to respond to an unprecedented period of growth and possibility. The demands on state revenue are tremendous, yet the state must make the investments now that will determine who we as a people and a state will be 10, 20, 30 years from now.

Texas and the federal government will be called upon sooner rather than later to preserve our competitive stance in the world with an educated work force. And inevitably, this issue will become personal for all of us. If history's lessons are to be heeded, we must work together to create a brighter tomorrow for our young people, our state, and our nation.

Smith is chancellor of the Texas Tech University System.