Tonight on NPR, the program "All Things Considered" featured a story on the increased burden which post-secondary education places upon families, teens and young adults. The combination of a rough economy, spiralling educational cost inflation, and massive governmental cut-backs are serving to .
The College Board suggests that the average cost of a year's private tuition, room, board and fees at the average private university is now $ 22,541 per year, which increases at an inflationary rate of 5% per year. The analogous cost for a public university is $ 8470.
Meanwhile, federal and state aid to students seeking an education is in the main being cut back, as government tries to reduce budget deficits and fund tax cuts by siphoning the funds from higher education. Students must incur substantial debt in order to make ends meet. Students acquiring a bachelor's degree from the public University of Texas in 2002 averaged $ 15,800 in debt per student. UT Graduate students averaged $ 31,800, while the average law student incurred $ 47,800 in debt. In addition to conventional student loans, statistics suggest that a substantial percentage of students are picking up credit card debt (at accompanying interest rates) before they leave the should-be-ivy-covered university walls.
Community college enrollments are increasing, as families at the bottom-ish end of the spectrum can no longer afford public universities. Private universities become inaccessible to the middle class.
Let's talk anecdotal here. My own undergraduate institution was the University of Arkansas, to which I matriculated in 1977. The tuition per semester then was $ 230, perhaps $ 500 to $ 600 after adjusting for inflation. Today, the same tuition for an in-state resident is $ 1667, still inexpensive, but almost three times as expensive.
By contrast, a year's tuition at Cornell University is $ 26,000 per year, with some 48% of the undergraduate population receiving little or no financial aid.
The federal Education Department spent something in the range of 50 billion dollars on education in 2002. The Center for the Study of Education Policy found that in the 2001-2002 year, total state spending on post-secondary education, excluding building construction, was 63.6 billion dollars. Thirteen states did not increase their funding enough to keep up with the rate of inflation.
By contrast, the tax cut approved by the US Senate is 350 billion dollars, while the House version is 550 billion dollars. Congress has thus far approved 62 billion dollars as an initial installment of paying for our action in Iraq.
I'm not going to wring my hands too much about the state of education funding in this country today, because hand-wringing seems to me to be ineffective at best. But I am troubled by the way in which education increasingly becomes the province of the rich.
Many fine institutions and grant offerors pitch in to help kids get educations. Princeton University, one of the nation's top schools, boasts that it can provide student aid to every student who needs it. Yet I worry that college education is becoming beyond the means of too many people.
I consider the mass expansion of post-secondary education spurred by the GI bill enacted after World War Two to be a key ingredient in the United States' unprecedented economic booms of the 1950s and 1960s. This program educated people across socio-economic lines, creating a generation of increasingly educated career professionals and middle class consumers, where before the war these same folks had been in many cases lower middle class people trapped by the depression. The 1960s educational funding initiatives helped the US consolidate a post-secondary educational system that could compete in the global marketplace. Although some governmental funding waste did take place, particularly in the area of fly-by-night vocational education, on the whole these programs were resounding successes.
Student loan and grant programs work. They generate highly qualified and skilled American professional folks and labor.
On fiscal issues, I tend to the pragmatic. I prefer government to pay for itself. I like programs like police, libraries, schools, and roads that make basic sense better than I like complicated and controversial things like agricultural subsidies and ill-advised benefits programs. I want taxes and government services to be moderate. I tend not to trust big government, especially when the party to which I do not belong has control of it.
By the same token, though, I do support funding what works. Post-secondary education works as an economic engine to help our national economy grow. Technology innovation fueled our economic boom. Educated consumers contribute more to the economy, and spend more in the economy. In our consumer/service society, education is one governmental investment that pays off.
I want to see more funding for post-secondary education, but I want to see most educational funding handled differently as well. The growth of community colleges marks a milestone in accessibility to
education for less well-off people. I want to see tuition assistance and liberal scholarships/living stipends introduced so that people now denied any post-secondary education can afford to go. It takes more than just tuition help to get someone through college. I want to see the public universities move away from an emphasis on research and academic prestige, and focus instead on providing quality education to students. I am convinced that educational spending outpaces the general rate of inflation because universities focus on "big ticket" prestige items, instead of the "smaller ticket" mundane task of getting as many qualified students educated as pragmatically possible. The recent move toward distance learning has been a welcome thing, but universities should focus on delivery of effective distance learning at a fraction of the current cost of these programs. In this internet-connected age, there's no reason why distance education should cost so much. There's every incentive to adopt a Free University system which permits almost anyone to afford to go to college by modem.
I'm not one of those starry-eyed dreamers who thinks every kid can or should go to an Ivy League school. But I know that education dollars spent on our university system prove a good investment for the American economy. The alternative is just what I fear is happening today--further stress on our national values as the economic gap among classes of people widens. I also perceive that a focus on "prestige" and "exclusivity" on the part of some public universities works a detriment in their achieving their main mission. Our two great Texas public universities make a habit of stiffening admission requirements in a bid to be seen as "top" schools. The average SAT score for U of Texas admittees is now 1262, while Texas A & M rejected a record 6000+ out of its 17,000 applicants this year. This is not the end of the world, of course, as Texas has fine second tier universities and admissions in neighboring states' state universities is relatively easy. But there is an air of "our mission is to be elite" that I find inconsistent with the mission I conceive for public education--to make affordable quality post-secondary education available to all.
I do not limit my wish list to college. I perceive that literally millions of Americans become displaced workers as economic fortunes in particular industries wax and wane. Now that community colleges are proving that they can handle masses of students, I want to see more one and two year programs made accessible and available to help re-tool and re-train people. We live in a funny country, in which we have an all-time shortage of nurses--and yet we do not fund enough nursing schools to meet the needs. We have a desperate need for medical technology people in a half dozen specialties, and yet scholarship monies to train displaced high tech workers for these jobs are lacking.
I'm not really worried about "handing out" money to people necessarily. Student loan programs have a place, as do work/study.
But I am concerned that post-secondary education made this country's economy hum, as one of the three great American societal levellers--affordable and accessible college, fluid and mobile small businesses, and workable financing for home ownership. This great socio-economic weapon against class distinction is now endangered.
I think that a university education should be available to anyone who wants one, with moderate debt and flexible availability. One shouldn't have to be a child of wealth to be a product of our educational system. The current course, cutting taxes while universities must raise tuition, is counter-productive. The net result, sadly, will be more people denied a college degree, and, ultimately, lost opportunities to maximize economic growth.
I perceive an underlying current of elitism behind this trend. The working idea is that getting the ordinary student through the ordinary college is no great priority. But my own view is different. I'm not really worried how many kids get through the B.A. program at Harvard or Amherst. But I care deeply that each student capable of doing the work be able to afford to go to a solid State U. Kids can't help who their parents are. They can only help their own grades and work ethic. Kids who overcome less spectacular hands should not have to be "top of the top" to get an education they can afford.