An Open Letter to President Obama

Drew A. Bennett offers the perspective of a two-year college leader on some ideas for change that wouldn't require a new stimulus bill.

February 19, 2009

Dear Mr. President,

There is much that our government, especially the office of the President, can do to promote education. Instead of pointing out what support for education was or was not contained in the recently passed stimulus bill, I would humbly offer a few suggestions for your consideration that are not dependent on Congress or additional funding.

While I am not a political pundit, economist or national figure, I do have a unique vantage point for providing advice on the importance of education to our nation. Two years ago, after retiring from a career in the U.S. Marines, I moved from one of the wealthiest and most educated areas of our country just outside our nation’s capital to an economically challenged part of middle America in the heart of the Ozarks. I went from teaching our country’s top students at the graduate level to leading a public, open admissions, two-year college, located in the 14th poorest congressional district in the country.

In addition to the military element of power, I have studied the political, economic and informational aspects of power, as well as the impact of education on society. Mr. President, based on my experience, I would rank education over bailouts and stimulus packages as the most productive and permanent method of increasing the economic prosperity of individual communities and our nation as a whole. Additionally, I believe that the security of our democracy is directly tied to the education of our citizens. Therefore, I would ask that you elevate the importance of education by taking some specific actions.

As president, the highest civilian award you will give is the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The criterion for this award is “especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” Since the award has been given, there have been over 60 recipients from television, sports, music and the film industry. Yet, in the history of this award there have been only a half a dozen or so recipients known for being educators. Our society rewards entertainers far more than educators. Just consider the recognition provided in the form of Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes, Grammys, Super Bowl rings, Heisman trophies, MVP, PGA and NBA awards. Mr. President, I would ask that you show our country that educators are at least as important as entertainers and sports figures by awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to educators at the same rate as other categories.

Despite the fact that almost half of all undergraduates in the United States are attending two-year institutions, community colleges receive only 2 percent of the $28 billion annually donated to postsecondary educational institutions. Foundations, corporations and individuals contribute 98 percent of donations to four-year schools, some of which already have tens of billions of dollars in endowments, while failing to support two-year colleges that have a much greater need. Only 25 percent of jobs in the United States require a degree from a four-year college, yet 70 percent of jobs require training provided by two-year institutions. While four-year colleges are the bedrock of our college system, we need a more balanced approach if we want to break the cycle of poverty by providing education to those who need it the most. Think of the impact on almost half of the undergraduates in our country if they benefited from 20 or 25 percent of the annual donations made to higher education instead of a mere 2 percent. Mr. President, I would ask that you use the bully pulpit of your office to call for a more equitable approach and publicly highlight this issue by asking our country’s wealthiest individuals and foundations to shift a greater percentage of their contributions directly to two-year colleges.

Education can increase federal and state revenues without increasing taxes or cutting programs. An individual with a two-year associate’s degree earns twice as much as a high school dropout and 20 to 30 percent more than a high school graduate. Additionally, someone with an associate degree is halfway to earning a four-year bachelor’s degree, which over a lifetime results in $1 million more than those with just a high school diploma. These figures not only represent more income for the individual, they also portray more buying power, investment capital and tax revenues, offering positive benefits for the economy. Not only do better educated citizens provide more revenue within the tax base, these citizens are less likely to draw on government programs such as welfare and unemployment benefits. Improving educational opportunities leads to a better work force which directly improves our economy and our security. Education must become a regular focus with an equal demand on the time of our President. An appropriate amount of that focus should center on two-year colleges with regularly visits, important policy announcements, and commencement speeches all occurring on two-year campuses. Mr. President, I would ask that you take at least as much time to focus on educational issues, with a suitable emphasis on two-year colleges, as you take to focus on the economy or our national security.

Every president says that education is a priority, yet their actions in the Oval Office all too frequently indicate otherwise. It is time to move beyond the stimulus bill and focus on fundamental changes. My plea is that you realize the education of our citizens, from kindergarten to graduate school, is directly related to the well being of our country. Teachers are just as important as entertainers, two-year colleges are just as important as four-year colleges, and the subject of education is just as important as economic concerns and national security issues. The total cost of highlighting these three concepts as suggested is zero. Yet, by taking such steps you begin to demonstrate that education is truly a priority. The hope of all America is that you lead us to a brighter future. I believe education is the path that will take us there.


Drew A. Bennett


Drew A. Bennett is chancellor of Missouri State University-West Plains.


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