President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
The Social Benefits of Higher Education
June 7, 2006
As Princeton bids farewell to the undergraduate and graduate members of the Class of 2006, it is a time to focus on the individual achievements of our graduates and to celebrate the opportunities that their Princeton education has made possible. In one sense, the benefits of a college education are easily quantifiable. According to the Census Bureau, for example, a worker with a bachelor’s degree now commands nearly double the annual income of someone with a high school diploma, and as the “knowledge economy” supplants traditional industries, this gap is only going to widen. We do not, however, measure the value or impact of a Princeton education only in dollars and cents. Rather, we seek to impart habits of mind that foster a taste for learning, an ambition to make a difference, and an inclination to serve others. Again and again alumni tell me that Princeton changed their lives, which I always interpret as a powerful testament to our success.
Yet in addition to the private goods that accrue to their graduates, colleges and universities also provide public goods that benefit society at large. None of these social benefits is more important, in my view, than advancing the ideal of equal opportunity by acting as engines of social and economic mobility. A college education is the most effective way I know of transcending the distinctions—whether of ancestry, wealth, or race—that fragment our society. By educating Princetonians of every Tiger stripe; by addressing the under-representation of students from low- and moderate-income families, we strengthen the social and economic fabric of our nation and equip it to face our increasingly competitive global marketplace with confidence. Princeton and its peers can make a significant difference by enhancing student financial aid, as we have done through our “no-required-loan” policy; by reaching out to disadvantaged schools, as our Admission Office and Alumni Schools Committees are doing; and by intervening in the lives of high school students with limited means but great potential through initiatives such as the Princeton University Preparatory Program.
Research universities like Princeton also stand in the forefront of America’s research enterprise, channeling public and private dollars into critical fields of inquiry. The kind of fundamental research that universities undertake has no analogue in American society—research universities are the research engine of our nation—and the new knowledge that is generated in this process is placed at the service of national goals and applied and adapted by the marketplace, enhancing human health and well-being and creating new industries that diversify and strengthen our economy. That is why Princeton’s cutting-edge initiatives in fields such as neuroscience, genomics, and engineering are so important and so exciting. And yet, as any classicist will tell you, we are also guardians of tradition. In our libraries, museums, and classrooms, the legacy of the past is collected, preserved, interpreted, and shared. To the extent that a full record of human experience can be said to exist, colleges and universities deserve much of the credit, ensuring that our cultural heritage is not only protected but enriched.
The academy is also uniquely equipped to foster a full and frank debate about the issues of our day. By welcoming new ideas, however unconventional; by upholding the principles of academic freedom in a censorious world; by shunning the superficial trends of popular culture in favor of thorough research and nuanced analysis; and by serving as a counterweight to propaganda, ignorance, and groundless revisionism, higher education makes it possible for many different voices to be heard in a framework of free and civil discourse. I reject the oft-expressed view that our faculties are bastions of close-minded, left-wing, and politically correct individuals who are brow-beating the young to adopt their narrow views. I invite anyone who believes that to spend just one month at Princeton and to experience the extraordinary diversity of views that are being expressed in classrooms, dining halls, and auditoriums. By at least one un-scientific survey instrument—my daily mail—I take great comfort in the fact that for every letter I receive that complains about the leftward tilt of the faculty, I receive another claiming that we are pandering to the Bush administration.
Colleges and universities also have a significant impact on the communities in which they reside. Our Community Auditing Program, for example, permits an average of 1,200 local residents to audit courses every year. The exhibitions, lectures, artistic performances, and athletic events we host make our communities more vibrant places in which to live. Finally, in a nation with a weak tradition of state support for the creative and performing arts, colleges and universities have increasingly become important patrons of the arts, nurturing young artists whose work is not yet ready to face the rigors of the marketplace and educating all students to appreciate the arts and become patrons of America’s cultural institutions. Princeton’s new University Center for the Creative and Performing Arts will immeasurably boost this effort.
It must be said, however, that colleges and universities, which are sometimes viewed as aloof and self-absorbed, need to do a better job of raising the public’s awareness of the social benefits that we provide and ensuring that these benefits are, in fact, delivered. Two events this winter suggest that we are moving in the right direction. In February, university presidents, rectors, and vice-chancellors from around the world gathered on our campus under the auspices of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to explore the “social benefits of the research university in the 21st century” and to develop strategies for communicating and, without compromising our integrity, securing societal support for the public goods we offer. Then, in March, the American Council on Education, together with some 400 colleges and universities, including Princeton, launched a multi-year campaign to inform the public about higher education’s vital social role.
Time and energy will be required to persuade the public that what unfolds on our campuses has a critical bearing on everyone’s quality of life, but this is a message we must convey if higher education is to secure the moral and material support it needs to maximize its social benefits, making our nation a better place for all.