Times Union Op-Ed: Don't Slam the Door to Higher Education

William Short, Director of Higher Education Opportunity Program at St. Lawrence University

What would you do if you could generate a return of $8 on a $1 investment, especially if you were absolutely certain that it is legal, ethical and moral? This would be an attractive investment at any time, but in tough financial times like these it makes even more sense.For the past four decades, New York's leaders have had the wisdom to make exactly this investment through our nation-leading Opportunity Programs, including the Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Opportunity Program, hosted by independent colleges and universities; Educational Opportunity Program, hosted by the State University of New York; and Seeking Education and Elevation through Knowledge, hosted by the City University of New York.Together these programs have graduated more than 5,000 people every year since 1969, so there are now more than 200,000 alumni participating in the economy as taxpayers, homeowners, employers and employees and entrepreneurs.While the exact causes of the current recession may be debated for decades, one factor that is absolutely clear here in New York is that we have been over-reliant on Wall Street and the financial sector of the economy. Of course the financial sector will always be important to our economy, but it is also abundantly clear that it makes sense to diversify so our overall economy is more resilient and therefore more stable. Educating people to participate in a diverse economy just makes sense in both the long and short term, especially when the alternative is to leave them in poverty.We all know New York's state budget is in serious trouble, and we all know we must pull together to make needed changes that will improve things for us all. Gov. David Paterson has proposed cuts totaling about $5.3 million across HEOP, EOP and SEEK in the face of an estimated $38 billion shortfall over the next four years. Enacting the proposed cut would result in an immediate, and insignificant, deficit reduction of less than 1.5 percent. Much more significant though would be the lost return on that investment. In fact, since we know program graduates contribute back $8 for every $1 invested by the state, this cut will in fact magnify the very deficit it tries to reduce.This cut is the worst thing we can do now. We know we can't add more resources at this time, but at least let's not make things even worse.Besides the clear economic consequences of enacting this cut, there are also moral consequences. A cut of this magnitude means we must deny hundreds of potential teachers, entrepreneurs, health care workers and engineers access to the kind of education and training they need to realize their potential. No one enters these kinds of fields without higher education, and New York cannot afford to throw them away. Not now, not ever.Making these cuts will slam shut the door of opportunity, locking out the kind of talent we need right when we need it the most. In these difficult times we may either open the door to creativity, energy and talent in the expectation that many hands make light work, or we can close the door and leave them in the cold and expect fewer people to shoulder the work of recovery.Whether one considers the question from an economic perspective or a moral one, the answer is perfectly clear. Closing the door won't close the gap.William Short is HEOP director at St. Lawrence University and president of the New York State Higher Education Opportunity Program Professional Organization. This article also reflects the views of Martha Bell, chair of Brooklyn College's SEEK Department, and Henry Durand, past president of the EOP Directors Council at the University at Buffalo.