Grant Petty: The Value of Supporting Our Public Universities

grant petty head shotAtmospheric Science Professor Grant Petty offered his view on public higher education in the August 31 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Petty is a member of the PROFS Steering Committee, the PROFS Board of Directors, and the University Committee. The entire column is printed here with his permission.

When I finished high school, it wasn’t clear that I would ever attend college. I had no savings and no prospects for significant financial aid.

I did have a job at McDonald’s, and I made enough to get by while still living with my mom. With few other options, and putting aside my longstanding interest in science, I seriously considered simply working my way up to manager and being satisfied with that.

Fortunately, a lingering spark of ambition compelled me to chart a better course for myself. Joining the U.S. Navy at age 17 was the break I needed. When my enlistment was up, my GI Bill stipend, modest though it was, let me complete — without accruing suffocating loads of debt — a four-year degree at an excellent public university whose state-subsidized tuition was then under $700 per year.

Today, thanks to those taxpayer investments both in education and in our veterans, I am a professor at another world-class public university, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I teach and conduct research on weather and climate, and I have the personal satisfaction of being able to address global issues and to help mentor the next generation of scientists, community leaders, teachers, policy-makers and entrepreneurs.

Wisconsin’s children should have the same opportunities I had, regardless of family income.

But now annual in-state tuition plus fees at UW-Madison tops $10,000. Even middle class students often graduate with so much debt that they can’t afford to choose a modestly paying career, such as teaching, journalism, public service or creative arts. Others can’t afford to go to college at all.

Wisconsin loses when our kids can’t pursue what they love and excel at.

No matter what you might have heard, the biggest recent cause of rising tuition has been a precipitous decline in state support for higher education over the past couple of decades. We’re told that Wisconsin is “broke.” But our real problem is that we’re now putting more tax dollars into prisons than universities.

We have forgotten what our parents and grandparents knew — and what our biggest economic competitors abroad still know: that adequately funded public education isn’t a drain on our economy but rather an enlightened investment in future prosperity and social progress.

Cutting support for education to patch a hole in our current budget is like eating our seed corn; it only makes our problems much worse down the road.

Some assert that tax dollars could be used more efficiently if spent on for-profit institutions. But abysmal graduation rates at many for-profit colleges suggest that their business model consists of efficiently strip-mining their students’ federally guaranteed loans and other resources and then cutting them loose.

Looking back at my own education, I’m profoundly grateful that I came of age in an era when even young people with no financial resources could earn a top-quality degree and not have their subsequent career choices dictated by the need to pay off debt.

The United States always has thrived economically, culturally and technologically when it has invested the most, not the least, in higher education. Let’s do the same in Wisconsin and insist that our tax dollars be used to make our public universities affordable for our kids and grandkids.

This, like nothing else, will move Wisconsin forward.