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Access to Affordable Higher Education is a National Security Issue

The current "Debt for Diploma" system of funding higher education is not working, as Demos has documented. It leaves too many young people weighed down by loans and undermines our nation's economic future. Now there is yet another reason to worry about the failings of the U.S. higher education system: The United States increasingly lacks the intellectual firepower that warfare requires in the 21st Century -- specifically as we confront the very real threat of cyber-terrorism, whether from anarchist individuals, radical non-state terrorist organizations, or sovereign nations themselves

The broad link between education and national security is nothing new. Ultimately, America's power rests on its wealth and economic competitiveness, and everyone knows that the global economy rewards nations with an educated workforce. 

But today, with the growing threat of cyber terrorism (documented here and here) and the technological advancement of our military capability, an educated citizenry is becoming a more pointed national security issue. America's military not only needs a workforce with expertise in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), but also knowledge of the language, history, and culture of other nations.

The Department of Defense (DoD) in several reports has identified language skills and regional expertise as both "critical war fighting skills" and "critical competencies." One report states: "It is DoD policy, that [f]oreign language and regional expertise be considered critical competencies essential to the DoD mission and shall be managed to maximize the accession, development, maintenance, enhancement, and employment of these critical skills appropriate to the Department of Defense’s mission needs.”  

Likewise, a U.S. defense industry publication noted how China, “has begun investing heavily in higher-end engineering and scientific education, paving the way for its rapid gains in high-tech manufacturing. Now, China is starting to turn this investment in engineering and scientific knowledge toward producing high-end military gear.”

The United States is a large country, but it is not tapping all its human capital and ensuring educational opportunity for young people with a natural aptitude for science or languages. As we witness the retirement of Baby Boomers and the demographic shift toward younger, more racial and ethnic communities of color, we need a better system of ensuring access to education that doesn't require great family wealth or financially crippling college loan debt. Otherwise, the exorbitant costs of higher education will continue to impede college graduation for the fastest growing groups in America. One study found that 70% of Black, Hispanic and Asian borrowers who did not complete a degree said that loans had prevented them from staying in school. Another reported that, “...[a]mong Black students who did not complete college, 69 percent cited high student loan debt as the reason." Increasingly these are the same communities of color on which we all will depend to protect our national security.

Congress, the President, and policymakers must do more than recognize the changing nature of national security threats; they must meet these threats by ensuring that higher education is affordable and accessible.