Higher Education: The Great Equalizer
Fred Morgan, President and CEO, The State Chamber of Oklahoma
For me, the holiday season and the end of the year are always a period of reflection and a time to be thankful. This year, I read “Hillbilly Elegy” by J. D. Vance, the poignant story of one person’s escape from the cyclical culture of poverty, unemployment, drugs, divorce and broken families. While some reviewers may say the story illustrates the depressing hollowing out of the middle class in the Rust Belt, I found it to be an inspiring tale of the American Dream.
Perhaps my feelings are personal because his story mirrors my own family’s struggles to emerge from generations of stifling poverty. Like the author, my family was trapped in poverty by a lack of education and economic opportunities. Also like the author, military service and higher education played a crucial role in lifting my family from poverty.
My grandparents had limited education and my father was the first person in his family to graduate from a 12-year high school. He left his subsistence agricultural community in the Ozark foothills to join the military, which enabled him to pursue a manufacturing job in St. Louis, Missouri. He and my mother raised three children and provided a lower middle-class standard of living. Life was better, but it was far from easy.
However, both of my parents recognized the importance of education. Good grades and completed homework were expected, if not always accomplished. All three children were encouraged and expected to go to college. There were no excuses: success was equated with obtaining a college degree. To my parents, a college degree was the key to a better life. Again, it wasn’t easy. There were no family resources for college tuition, but through hard work, grants and student loans, my parents lived long enough to see two of their three children attend and graduate from college (and in my case a postgraduate law degree) , which eventually led to successful careers.
Looking back, I am sure they were pleased. Needless to say, I am thankful for the opportunity I was given. Not surprisingly, as a result of my own personal experience, I am an enthusiastic supporter of making higher education accessible to everyone, no matter their income or background. A better educated population ensures benefits not only to individuals, but to society as a whole through increased wealth, more civic participation and improved social mobility.
Social mobility — the ability to move from one class to another through education and hard work — has always been an integral part of the American Dream. Some say it is disappearing, but as my own experience and that of Mr. Vance illustrate, higher education can be a great equalizer of class privilege. I continue to be very thankful for the opportunities higher education has afforded me and my family.
As we consider the funding needs of our state during this budget crisis, we should consider the story of Mr. Vance and the thousands of young people like him for whom higher education is the gateway to a better life. If we continue to cut higher education funding, we will eventually limit access to those who desire to climb the social ladder and achieve the American Dream.