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The University of Georgia and the rest of the University System of Georgia continue to be a vital part of Georgia's economy. (Photo/Jason Born)

Universities have a special place in American society. For many people, college is a vehicle for upward social mobility and achieving the American Dream. The University of Georgia, in particular, has a proud history as the birthplace of public higher education in America and has served Georgia for centuries. Since 2015, however, confidence in higher education has eroded, falling from 57% in 2015 to 48% in 2018, according to Gallup.

Despite declining opinions of postsecondary education, the data for Georgia are clear — college remains an important asset to the state’s economy and citizens.

The criticisms have been wide-ranging. The rising, burdensome student loan debt has increasingly become a hot-button political issue. In addition, accusations of anti-conservative bias on college campuses have led to sharp partisan divides in views of college. Pew Research Center found that 67% of Democrats believe college has a positive impact on the country, but only 33% of Republicans feel the same way. Despite the concerns, however, I think college remains a mostly positive influence on society.

Though student loan debt is a growing problem, college is still a good investment. Although college is becoming more expensive, those with college degrees tend to earn much higher wages. According to a U.S. Census Bureau report, people ages 25 and over with a bachelor’s degree earned $65,482 on average in 2016, roughly double the $35,615 earned by people ages 25 and over whose highest educational attainment was high school. Also, a college education can provide graduates with job security. The College Board reports that, in 2015, the unemployment rate for 25 to 34-year-olds was only 2.6%, lower than the 8.1% unemployment rate for high school graduates in the same age range.

And, at least at UGA, conservative opinions are well-represented. The University of Georgia College Republicans is the largest College Republicans chapter in the country, according to its website, and conservative-leaning organization, Turning Point UGA, has leveraged enough support and recognition to host events such as those with then-Candidate Brian Kemp, Charlie Kirk and Donald Trump Jr. in 2018. The strong conservative presence on campus combined with powerful liberal groups fosters an environment that welcomes free speech and debate.

Universities are an important part of Georgia’s economy as well. According to a report released by the Selig Center for Economic Growth, the University System of Georgia plays a strong, pervasive role in adding value to and creating jobs in the Georgia economy. In total, USG's 26 institutions had an impressive $17.7 billion economic impact on their communities in fiscal year 2018, nearly a 5% increase from the previous fiscal year. The USG generated 168,284 jobs, accounting for 3.8% of the state’s nonfarm jobs. Perhaps most importantly, the universities are cost-effective. For every dollar spent on the USG, there was a $1.47 economic output on average.

Thus, although Americans have increasing doubts about the effects of college, the data paint a much different story. The USG continues to be a positive force for upward social mobility, political debate and the Georgian economy.

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