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Dean Bresciani: Higher ed remains an investment, not a cost

FARGO -- North Dakotans have long valued education, and increasingly, our state is realizing the unparalleled role of higher education in creating the success of North Dakota and its residents.

Even a casual observer would note that an 11-campus system of colleges and universities, in a state of our size and population, shows a longstanding tradition of accessible, affordable higher education. So in many senses, the observation is nothing new.

But in a state on the cusp of reframing -- and achieving -- an economic future perhaps never before imagined, a rapidly growing number of business, civic and legislative leaders are coming to fully appreciate the investment opportunity and economic return being contributed by our North Dakota colleges and universities.

Those benefits in stunning quantities are shown through our two nationally ranked research universities. But those benefits scale, in ways just as important at their community levels and with a growing statewide impact, to our two-year and four-year undergraduate campuses.

It is worth noting that the personal and social benefits of higher education are irrefutably established by economists. There are few investments with more certain and dependable returns for either the individual or society.

And as I suggested above, our state since its founding has valued an educated populace.

That said, an odd and ironic national media trend has emerged in recent years suggesting that higher education "isn't worth it" and that there is no "value added." As a faculty member whose doctoral training is in finance and economics, and as a professional who has dedicated my life and career to higher education, I am of course troubled by this.

At the same time, I have to recognize that higher education is, to the outside observer, a complicated and easily misunderstood aspect of our lives. As a result, it can be an irresistible target for those who might be sincere in their criticism of it, as well as those who might benefit from offering criticism whether it's sincere or not.

For that reason, in coming months I plan to offer a series of op-eds to our state's leading news agencies, which I hope will shed some light on what higher education is and is not, why we as a state and nation support it as do few other places in the world and what benefits result from that support -- not only for our students but perhaps even more important, for our state and nation.

I'll try to respectfully recognize what critics say about that, and where they do and don't hit the mark.

Speaking of critics, there no doubt will be some who'll challenge my effort and virtually anything I can offer as support for my position, including external experts on the topic. But at the end of the day, I believe that the impacts and contributions of higher education will for most readers be not only more understandable but substantially more appreciated.

As a teaser of sorts for what's to come, let me offer this thought to people who suggest that higher education is an over-priced, inaccessible and unproductive drain of resources and time, with little return on investment.

In both percentages and sheer numbers, more Americans than ever are accessing higher education.

If we dispense with the notion that millions of Americans are so flush with resources and gullible as to be duped into a groundless and expensive belief in higher education, I think readers will find that there are sound reasons why we so strongly believe in higher education's value.

I think readers also will better appreciate why higher ed remains an inarguably commendable individual and societal investment (rather than a cost), and why employers more than ever are using higher education as an entry standard for most careers -- including agriculture, the trades and professions -- and that a surprisingly varied number of educational paths and disciplines can lead to success in those fields.

Bresciani is president of North Dakota State University.