08/09/2011 06:06 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2011

Why It's Imperative That Everyone Have Access to Higher Education

Shortly after I became chancellor of the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) over two years ago, I convened a town hall meeting on campus to discuss the ongoing state budget crisis. In the audience was a young man -- like many UIC students, the first in his family to attend college -- who asked if he could come to visit me sometime. Of course I agreed. When he arrived at my office for our scheduled appointment, he was out of breath, his reddish-brown hair was disheveled, his T-shirt was dirty and he looked exhausted. He apologized and explained that he had worked just before our meeting and had run all the way across campus in between classes.

I was awed by this young man and how hard he was willing to work to achieve his goal. At the same time, I felt a huge sense of responsibility as chancellor, as I realized that an essential part of my job leading a university campus during the Great Recession of the 21st century would be keeping the doors of opportunity open for this young man and thousands like him at UIC. Many of our students hold down one or more jobs to finance their educations to realize their dreams.

I am very grateful to Sheila Johnson for her invitation to join the ranks of contributors to HuffPost BlackVoices, an exciting new addition to the world of online news and commentary. As head of Chicago's largest public research university (with 27,300 students), a member of the board of directors of the Coalition of Urban-Serving Universities, and a member of the Institute of Medicine and the New York Academy of Medicine, my goal is to use this important new forum to share my perspectives about access to higher education, health care, and economic opportunity for our nation's young people.

The severity and complexity of the crises we face as a society -- economic, social, environmental -- can be solved only with the help of a highly educated, trained, motivated and informed workforce. Developing a more robust and resilient economy, new clean energy, new technologies and new ways to alleviate human suffering will only be achieved by harnessing our collective energies and talents and giving everyone who wants to make a meaningful contribution to society the education and training to do so.

America's colleges and universities drive economic and workforce development, catalyze technological advancement, produce the nation's health professionals and anchor communities. It is hard to imagine what our society would be like without our world-renowned system of higher education, both public and private. Yet we live in a time of dwindling resources, severe unemployment and disinvestment in public education, which threaten to create still-wider gaps between rich and poor. Millions of citizens are facing the future with fear: they have no homes, no jobs and no access to proper health care.

It is vital that young people with high aspirations, like the student who came to visit me, have the chance to complete their educations and pursue careers that take full advantage of their drive and talents. But hardly a day goes by that we don't read about state budget cuts to higher education, lack of reinvestment in critical infrastructure, and colleges and universities being forced to increase tuition to compensate for declining public support. Thus, many students from low- or middle-income families abandon higher education, take longer to earn degrees or leave school with staggering debt loads.

What are some of the consequences? Some students decide that they cannot attend college, or drop out for financial reasons and never return. But sometimes the effects are more subtle. Take a medical student who wants to work in primary care medicine, an area of great need in both urban and rural communities. Graduating from medical school with debt exceeding $200,000, she finds herself forced to choose higher-paying specialties rather than family medicine. Repeated over and over, this leaves populations most in need with less access to basic-quality health care. We cannot maintain, much less advance, our progress as a nation if we do not reinvest in our people and our infrastructure and support those most in need.

Historically, America's colleges and universities have been the great equalizers in our society, giving wave after wave of newcomers the chance at opportunity and intellectual advancement. The Morrill Act of 1862 created land-grant colleges for the purpose of teaching agriculture and innovations that promoted a liberal and practical education for the average citizen. When I was in college, higher education meant a higher standard of living: a better-educated citizenry meant a higher tax-based community, which led to a better overall quality of life. Public higher education was designed for the common good. It is America's research universities, including public institutions such as UIC, that have led the way toward discoveries that have revolutionized society and kept the United States at the forefront of the world's economy. Public universities, and urban ones in particular, have a special role to play in supporting our cities and in building their states' economic base.

As Chicago's largest public research university and the city's 14th-largest employer, UIC exemplifies the mission of the Coalition of Urban-Serving Universities (USU). We have a unique opportunity and responsibility to contribute to the vitality of urban life, and we have embraced it. We have the nation's largest college of medicine, and one of the most diverse. Operating one of only two colleges of dentistry remaining in Illinois, we are the state's largest provider of Medicaid dental services. We are a major producer of teachers for the Chicago public schools. I've had the great pleasure of meeting many UIC alumni over the years; a resounding echo in many of their stories is how transformative their education was, how UIC changed their lives, and how they feel forever indebted.

Our undergraduate students come mostly from Chicago and its collar counties. Many of these students are the first in their families to attend college, and a substantial number are recent immigrants. The student body is so diverse that no racial or ethnic group constitutes a majority. UIC has long been a gateway to the American dream, as befits its location on Chicago's near west side, where Jane Addams' historic Hull-House -- located on our campus -- so nobly aided earlier generations of the newly arrived and disadvantaged. Building on this legacy, we play a critical role in providing high-quality health care to our state. UIC's health sciences colleges are the principal educator of physicians, dentists, pharmacists and other health professionals in Illinois. Our academic research is centered on community disparities, biomedical discovery, urban resilience and the global environment.

UIC's profile mirrors the mission of the USU. Every USU member institution works to support its own community through specific initiatives reflecting regional needs and that institution's academic and research strengths. In so many ways, USU institutions are a key to the nation's future -- for example, collectively we train more than a fifth of future urban teachers in the United States, and 14 USU institutions have colleges of medicine that educate an urban health workforce. USU institutions actively partner with the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) to explore how we can better meet local, state and regional needs to improve health care and develop stronger economies.

When the nation and individual states set funding priorities, remember that every dollar allocated to a university is an investment in the future, often paid back many times over in tangible returns alone. USU's almost 50 member universities have a combined economic impact of more than $54 billion in their communities. Short-sighted policies will deprive our children and grandchildren of opportunities we took for granted. We cannot afford to let this happen. And so, in the months ahead, I will use this space to talk about issues of vital importance to higher education and those we serve.

Robert F. Kennedy once said, "Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation." One of the great rewards of running a college or university is that every day I see countless faculty, staff and students working to bring about change -- transmitting knowledge, making new discoveries, serving communities, caring for the sick. It is our responsibility to ensure that current and future generations of students have the same opportunities, in ways large or small, to help shape history.