December 17, 2019

The Transformative Power of Higher Education

December 17, 2019

As 2019 comes to an end, I want to celebrate and to congratulate all of you for Mason’s remarkable achievements on so many fronts—from conceiving an Arlington innovation district to stimulate regional economic development, to shaping the future in high-quality online education. Above all, Mason continues to transform the lives of our students and impact the larger community and the world. In that spirit, I’d like to share some thoughts about the transformative power of higher education.

Higher education has long been seen as a path to economic security and springboard to success. Yet today, the public has cast serious doubts around that value proposition. The decline in public funding puts upward pressure on the cost of college, which continues to rise at a rate above inflation. This leaves many to wonder if they can afford college at all, and if so, whether the return is worth their investment. Ironically, with the rapid expansion of our knowledge economy, a college education is more crucial than ever before in capturing the American Dream. Coined by James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book The Epic of America, his idealized vision shared the “dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. …a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” (p. 214-215).

I have experienced firsthand the transformative power of public higher education. As an immigrant coming to the United States in my twenties to complete my graduate education, I could have never imagined that some 20 years later, I would be the provost of a major research university. For a period of time during my graduate study, I left to work in the private sector as a systems engineer. While I enjoyed honing my skills, I realized that my true calling remained in academia. Not only did I love working with students and enjoy the process of knowledge creation, I also wanted to make sure that others were afforded the same opportunities that were offered to me. I returned to the university, completed my Ph.D., and started my first job as an assistant professor shortly thereafter. As they say, “the rest is history.”

Of all the freedoms the U.S. offers to those individuals who make a home here, none—in my opinion—are greater than the inclusiveness of higher education and the openness of a merit-based societal reward system. It is not the norm, nor is it a given, throughout the world for doors to open simply due to a degree credential and a desire. The U.S. has been a talent destination for decades due to the accessibility of higher education and opportunities for social mobility. That is an essential ingredient of American prosperity.

With all the talent and economic vibrancy around us, Mason has been a desirable destination with a significant number of our students who are starting their own American Dream. As education broadens the mind and provides alternative perspectives, students’ outlook and their approach to the world can become more open, tolerant, and willing to engage. When our students graduate, they are not only more employable and more financially secure, their views of the world are also profoundly changed. Done right, we equip our students to not only realize their own dreams, but to go on and better the world around them, and that is the true transformative power of higher education. With these thoughts, I wish you a wonderful holiday season. I look forward to your feedback and comments as always.

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