In the book “College for the Commonwealth,” co-author Michael Benson makes the case that higher education is crucial to fostering an informed, engaged, and productive citizenry that benefits all Americans, not just the one who attend a college or university.
That’s especially true in Kentucky, which Benson says is fortunate to have a robust system of higher education, from highly regarded private institutions like Transylvania University and Centre College, to the network of public research universities, regional universities, and community college campuses.
“It should be something we should appreciate and cherish and promulgate and support,” says Benson, “and we’ve got to do a better job of making that case.”
Benson is the 13th president of Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond. He appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss the contributions of higher education to a civil society, and the challenges EKU and other schools in the commonwealth face today.
A School for All of Kentucky
EKU began as the Eastern Kentucky Normal School in 1906, but its roots go all the way back to a private college called Central University, which was founded in Richmond in 1874.
Now the school has an enrollment of more than 14,000 and a service region of 22 southeastern Kentucky counties, but Benson says the school attracts students from across the commonwealth.
“Ninety-two percent of our freshman class this last year was from the state of Kentucky,” he says. “While we say Eastern Kentucky University describes who we are, it doesn’t define who we are. We really, in a lot of ways, are Kentucky’s university in that we have the highest percentage of Kentucky students at our institution than any other place.”
Another key characteristic of EKU students, according to Benson, is that 51 percent of them are eligible for federal financial aid called Pell Grants. Those are need-based grants to low-income students which do not have to be repaid. That assistance puts higher education within reach of people who may not otherwise have the opportunity to go to college.
“We service a certain population [for whom] college is that one opportunity that is going to change their lives more than anything else,” he says.
In Benson’s five years as president of EKU, the school has seen record enrollments and improved student retention and graduation rates. He attributes some of that success to upgraded campus facilities that promote student safety and comfort.
“Students today are pretty sophisticated,” Benson says. “If they show up with their mom and dad… and you don’t have what they want in terms of a residence hall, academic space… a dining hall and a [recreation] center, their money is portable.”
Life Under Performance-Based Funding
But the past decade has not been easy for EKU and Kentucky’s other public universities. The schools have faced multiple rounds of state budget cuts, rising pension obligations, and staff and faculty downsizings.
There’s also the new performance-based funding model, which ties an institution’s state appropriation to achieving certain metrics like the number of degrees awarded, the type of degree produced (such as science and technology versus liberal arts), and whether the school is closing achievement gaps between various student groups.
Critics argue performance-based funding could benefit larger schools at the expense of smaller, regional universities like EKU that tend to serve students from rural communities that may have more economic and academic disadvantages. Benson says performance funding is here to stay, although he expects it to be adjusted over time. He credits the model with forcing schools to focus – in a positive way – on important performance outcomes.
“There’s an investment that the state of Kentucky makes in our institutions,” he says. “So are we being accountable, are we producing right degrees, are we doing it in a timely way, are we being efficient with what I would consider really sacred funds that the taxpayers of the state of Kentucky give us?”
Despite the funding obstacles, Benson says Kentucky’s higher education system is performing well, earning a B or B-plus, in his opinion.
The Case for Higher Education
State officials are also pushing the colleges and universities to better prepare students for the thousands of jobs currently available in Kentucky and positions that are expected to open in the future. That includes a greater emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and health-related degrees.
But that doesn’t mean liberal arts degrees are going away. Benson says those programs will continue to be important because of the benefits they offer students as they transition from school to the job market.
“It’s more than just getting job training, it’s more than just filling that cog in the machine for workforce needs,” he says. “It’s… the ability to get along with other people, to reason, to think, to write, to argue cogently… That’s what college should be about.”
Yet higher education in the United States continues to come under attack by some. Benson says some of those criticisms arise from problems the system itself has created, such as athletics scandals or problems with financial mismanagement.
Some states have also looked at reevaluating or even scrapping tenure for college faculty. Benson says tenure is core to academic life because it enables professors to be bold and outspoken without fear of losing their jobs. He also says it’s critical for smaller schools like Eastern.
“You’re going to have a hard time attracting faculty without any sort of guarantees of tenure at a place like EKU if it were to go away,” he says.
Given these criticisms, Benson says it’s incumbent for college and university leaders to make the case that higher education is fundamental, even critical, to a civil society. That’s what he does in “College for the Commonwealth: A Case for Higher Education in American Democracy,” the book he co-authored last year with Hal R. Boyd.
Benson and Boyd explored the origins of the U.S. system of higher education, and explore the benefits of postsecondary learning to students, communities, and the nation. Benson says President George Washington was among the first people to call for a national university even though he never attended college.
“He saw the inherent value in an educated citizenry,” Benson says, “because a more educated citizenry is going to be a benefit to all of us.”