I was delighted to learn of Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum’s victory in the Democratic primary in Florida governor’s race. He has had a remarkable career in public service that dates back to 2003, when he became the youngest person elected to the Tallahassee City Commission at the age of 23. I think he is someone who could become an important national figure some day; I wish him luck in what will be a very difficult race.
Gillum’s story reminds me of many of the young men and women I met while working at City College. He was one of seven children. His father was construction worker. His mother drove a school bus. His alma mater, Florida A&M University, played a transformative role in his life. He served as president of the FAMU Student Government Association and was the first student to be a member of the University’s Board of Trustees. He also met his wife there.
On its home page, Florida A&M, which was founded in 1887 and is an HBCU (Historically Black College and Universities), states “What distinguishes Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University from other universities is its legacy of providing access to a high-quality, affordable education to many students who otherwise may never have the opportunity to fulfill their dreams of getting a college degree.”
While it serves a more diverse student body, City College, which is the flagship of the CUNY system, has lived up to “its legacy of access, opportunity and transformation” since it was founded in 1847, 40 years before Florida A&M. Had Mr. Gillum grown up in New York City, odds are strong he would have attended CCNY or one of the 24 other schools and colleges that comprise “the greatest urban university in the world.”
Andrew Gillum’s story, like those of CCNY alums Andrew Grove, Gen. Colin Powell (USA) ret., and countless others who graduated from public college and universities, reminds us of the important role these institutions play in our society and economy. They serve as a bridge between modest beginnings and limitless possibilities.
They are engines of upward mobility. Young men and women who are starting careers as teachers, engineers, accountants, nurses, architects, etc. often enter the middle class the moment they move the tassels on their mortarboards from the right side to the left.
Supporting public colleges and universities is one of the soundest investments a state or city could make. They create strong talent pools for employers, and, since college grads earn higher salaries, the additional tax revenue they generate will pay for the grants. Additionally, research universities can be centers of innovation that lead to entire new industries. Think Silicon Valley.
Yet, in most states, investment in public higher education has gone down while tuition has gone up. In 28 states, tuition generated more than 50 percent of public colleges total revenue for FY 2017, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. Since 1987-88, tuition at public four-year colleges and universities has tripled.
In addition, many public universities now recruit heavily from other states. At one time, it was almost as difficult for an out-of-state student to be accepted at a flagship state university as at an Ivy League school. Now, however, schools such as University of Michigan and University of Virginia have sizable out-of-state enrollments. That’s because they pay up to three times what in-state students pay.
What becomes of a school’s public service mission when that happens? For every out-of-state student University of Michigan enrolls a student from Detroit, Flint or Lansing doesn’t get to go. How many will of them stay in Michigan after graduation?
The conversation about public colleges and universities these days revolves more around what their teams do on the gridiron than what faculty and students achieve in the classroom and laboratory. Recent sex abuse scandals have hurt their images.
However, the stories of people like Andrew Gillum remind us that public higher education remains a pathway of opportunity for young men and women who might not otherwise be able to attend college. We need to keep that pathway clear and wide. It’s not only just, it’s good business, too.