Invest in Opportunity

Nov. 10, 2015

As prepared for delivery at the 2nd Annual All-Class Convening of the Aspen-Rodel Fellows on Nov. 7, 2015

Good evening. It is a pleasure to be with you and a privilege to share some thoughts at this reunion of Rodel fellows. I am grateful to Mickey Edwards for the invitation to be here, and to all of you for giving me a few moments of your time.

In my current job, I do a lot of speaking in front of alumni groups. I have to say, though, that this is an unusually distinguished alumni audience. You were a remarkably accomplished group when you participated in the Rodel seminars, and you are even more so today. Your achievements testify to your talent, your hard work, your commitment to public service and this country, and, of course, to the good judgment and foresight of Mickey Edwards, who chose well when he selected the Rodel fellows.

It is a bit of an exaggeration to refer to you as an "alumni group," but the connection goes beyond mere metaphor. Mickey’s strategy for the Rodel seminar replicates in microcosm the essential features of a liberal arts education: a diverse student body brought together to wrestle with basic philosophical questions in a residential setting. The extracurricular activities—the lunches and dinners, the outings to Lynn Britt Cabin and Preservation Hall—were as important to the mix as were the seminars; each would have been incomplete without the other.

Mickey thereby managed to create among you a kind of community too often missing in politics, and indeed, in our country. Establishing a genuine political community has always been a challenge in the United States. You might say it has been this country’s defining challenge. At the time of the American founding, political theorists believed that democracies could succeed only if they were small and homogenous. The idea that a republic could be as geographically vast or as demographically diverse as the colonial United States was a novel and even shocking thought. James Madison’s "Federalist 10"—which you read in your Rodel seminars and which I assume remains vividly familiar to all of you—is famous in part because it made the path-breaking argument that large republics had advantages over small ones.

The freedom and blessings that we enjoy in the United States today—and, I would add, the diversity of talent assembled from across the country in this room tonight—demonstrate the power of Madison’s insight. But the advantages that large republics have over small ones do not eliminate their disadvantages. The Constitution of this country begins with the deceptively simple phrase "We the People of the United States of America." That phrase is not a simple description of a demographic fact, nor is it the statement of a historical project now complete. It is the expression of an aspiration, a challenge that every new American generation must take for its own. We inherit from our predecessors the task of carrying forward America’s great experiment in democracy, of proving to the world that we can transcend our differences of opinion and interest and geography and ancestry so that we can truthfully claim to be one people, "We the People," governing ourselves with an eye to a shared future.

The Rodel seminars deftly combined three strategies for creating community. First, the seminars reminded you of shared values that unite you, and indeed animate arguments that might at a more superficial level divide you. We argue intensely, for example, about the meaning of liberty and equality not because we disagree about whether they matter, but rather because we agree that they do. Second, the seminars gave you a shared project—nothing so grand as fighting a war, or taming a frontier, certainly—but deciphering the baffling dialogue between Rainsborough and Ireton, for example, counts as a shared project, even if modest in scope. Third, the seminars compelled you to share your lives for a time—to break bread together and connect not only at the cerebral level of shared discourse but at the human level of shared experience.

This last strategy, the one that depends on personal contact and shared experience, is much more difficult to implement at the scale of a modern nation-state: we cannot dine with all of our fellow citizens. The Rodel seminars benefit from their smallness and intimacy, from characteristics that the United States from its inception has lacked. But shared projects have helped to forge the identity of the American people throughout our history, and tonight I want to urge upon you a shared project. I want to urge you to make a long-term investment in opportunity, and in our children’s shared future.

Let me begin by emphasizing the idea of "investment." Investments are designed to have a return. You judge investments by their returns, and if you have the freedom and the self-discipline to do so, you judge them by their long-term returns.

Investing wisely is a way to maximize the value of resources. I know that those of you in this room, and the people in this country, disagree about the desirability of government spending. Investing, however, is a special kind of spending. Indeed, we all know from both personal and political experience that we have to limit some spending on the present if we want to have capital to invest for the future.

To invest, you must have the freedom to spend on long-term returns rather than focusing all of your resources on short-term needs and debts. Among other things this means having a discretionary budget in this country that has the capacity to make investments, and to achieve that we must have both meaningful entitlement reform and new revenue-raising measures.

This country’s greatness has always depended upon our willingness to invest for the long-term, and our future depends on our ability to do so again. We must invest in highways and bridges, in hospitals and vaccines, in the power grid, and in the military that keeps our nation and the free world secure. We must invest in schools and in research. We must make investments that allow the individuals, families, and communities of this country to leverage their talent and hard work, and so to magnify the returns that they can produce for themselves and for society.

You know more than I do about highways, bridges, and the power grid. I am not going to say anything further about them. You will not be surprised, I suspect, that I want to say some things about education and, in particular, about universities. I do not intend to talk to you about private universities like my own, or about the need for research funding—though I will be more than happy to bend your ears about those topics on another occasion. I want instead to speak about what should be one of the nation’s most serious concerns today, which is the fate of the great public research universities in all of your states.

America’s flagship public universities are engines of opportunity and drivers of social mobility. They produce 26 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in this country and nearly half of all doctoral degrees.[1] They have been admired worldwide, and they have attracted new talent to our shores for generations. We have built their reputations, their faculties, and their resources over decades and centuries, through visionary legislation like the Morrill Act and through a tradition of free competition that caused them to push for higher levels of excellence. If we allow these universities to deteriorate, we will squander an irreplaceable heritage. There is no way that private universities or the private sector more generally can replace what the great public universities do for this country.

Unfortunately, public universities are being asked to do more and more with less and less. Enrollments have increased, and government funding has decreased. Inflation-adjusted state support per student at public research universities declined by more than 25 percent between 2008 and 2013.[2]

I said earlier that the way to judge an investment is by its return. Education is an investment, and the return is extraordinary. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York estimates the annual return from a four-year college degree today at 15 percent—that number, 15 percent, is the average return across all four-year degrees in all fields from all colleges. It is more than twice the 60-year average return from the stock market, and it is multiple times the average return from corporate bonds, gold, or housing.[3] The wage premium from a four-year college degree is as high or higher today than it has ever been.[4] And if we add in the non-financial benefits of a college education, the real returns are even higher.

Now, of course, good investments are efficient investments. If we can reduce the price of an investment and generate an equally good return, it becomes a better investment. All universities, including my own, need to look for ways to pursue our missions more efficiently. But efficient education is not the same thing as cheap education. It would have been cheaper, after all, to Skype you into the Rodel seminars rather than flying you into Aspen—it would have been cheaper, and none of you would have been stranded by snowstorms at the Aspen airport! It would have been cheaper to do that, but less efficient, because the return on investment would have been dramatically lower.

One of the best ways to increase the efficiency of investment in higher education is to increase completion rates. College degrees produce a high economic return; incomplete coursework does not. But increasing completion rates may require more investment. If public universities lack the resources to staff courses properly, students take longer to graduate, drop-out rates increase, and the return on public investment diminishes.

Beyond investing directly in our public universities, you also can invest indirectly—for example, by freeing them from some of the regulations that now make it far more difficult to run a public university than a private one, or by giving them the freedom to raise funds from alumni without fear that philanthropic success will be used as a reason to further reduce state support.

Let me conclude with one of my favorite quotations from American history, a quotation that returns us to the challenge of forging a single American people. The quotation comes from a speech given by the liberated slave Frederick Douglass in Glasgow, Scotland in 1860:

"The Constitution says: ‘We the people’ … not we the white people, not we the citizens, not we the privileged class, not we the high, not we the low, not we of English extraction, not we of French or of Scotch extraction, but ‘we the people.’"[5]

Douglass dared to express an utterly audacious dream—the dream that all of us, despite our differences and our conflicts and our sins against one another, could come together as one people, united by a commitment to liberty. His vision was beautiful and profound and undaunted by the ugly circumstances of his time.

If we want to participate in this audacious dream, then we must be courageous enough to invest in opportunity, to invest for the long-term, to invest in the shared future of all our children. This country has never been simply about what the individual can do, or about what the government can do. From the moment of this country’s founding, Americans have made it their shared project to invest together in opportunity. That basic commitment—the commitment to invest in opportunity—remains vital and alive today. It is a commitment that all of us inherit from our past, and I hope all of you will embrace it as part of our future.

Thank you for your leadership, your time, and the opportunity to speak with you tonight. I wish you all the best.

  1. William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos, and Michael S. McPherson, Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 262.
  2. American Academy of Arts and Sciences, "Public Research Universities: Changes in State Funding," Section 3, (2015): 12.
  3. Jason R. Abel and Richard Deitz, "Do the Benefits of College Still Outweigh the Costs?" Current Issues in Economics and Finance 20, no. 3 (November 2014). See also Hamilton Project, "Regardless of the Cost, College Still Matters."
  4. David Leonhardt, "Is College Worth It? Clearly, New Data Say," New York Times, 27 May 2014.
  5. John W. Blassingame, ed., Speeches, Debates, and Interviews, Vol. 3 of The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 1855-63.