Majoring in Debt
By Adolph L. Reed Jr., January 2004 Issue
Higher education is a basic social good. As such, it should be available to all, without cost, who meet admission standards. The federal government, as the guarantor of social rights, should bear primary responsibility for providing free college for all.
This proposal isn't prohibitively costly; the total bill for all students currently enrolled in public institutions is under $27 billion, less than one-third of what George W. Bush is spending on Iraq this year. Closing recently opened corporate tax loopholes would also more than meet the program's cost, even if enrollments doubled as a result of eliminating tuition as a constraint.
Moreover, this program isn't pie in the sky. It has a clear precedent in living memory. The GI Bill paid full tuition and fees, as well as a living-wage stipend, for nearly eight million returning World War II veterans. We've done it before, we can do it again, and this time for everyone.
The crisis in public education is intensifying. As almost every state reels from the effects of recession and tax cuts, legislatures slash funding for higher education, the largest discretionary item in most state budgets. Colleges respond with hefty tuition increases, reduced financial assistance, and new fees. These measures put an extra burden on the average family, whose net worth has declined over the last two years for the first time in half a century.
Increased tuition, coupled with dwindling financial aid, is a significant problem for millions of families. According to the College Board, over the last decade, average tuition and fees at public four-year colleges increased 40 percent, and last year alone it increased by 14 percent. Community colleges increased tuition by a similar percentage last year.
Financial aid is not picking up the slack. Three decades ago, the financial aid system, with Pell grants as the backbone, guaranteed access to public colleges for primarily low- and moderate-income students. Millions of Americans earned college degrees as a result. In 1975, the maximum Pell grant covered 84 percent of costs at a four-year public college. Now, the grant covers only 42 percent of costs at four-year public colleges and only 16 percent of costs at four-year private colleges.
Meanwhile, colleges are shifting away from grants and toward loans. A decade ago, 50 percent of student aid was in the form of grants and 47 percent was in the form of loans. Today, grants are down to 39 percent of total aid; loans have increased to 54 percent.
What's worse, many of these loans are irrespective of need. In 1992, Washington decided to further help out the wealthier by making unsubsidized loans available to all students, changing the definition of need, and increasing the limits for subsidized loans. Now unsubsidized loans, although the most expensive, account for more than half of all federal loan monies.
In a bureaucratic maneuver, the Bush Administration recently changed the federal needs formula that determines how much of a family's income is really discretionary--and therefore fair game for covering college costs. A report by the Congressional Research Service states that the new financial formula will reduce Pell grants by $270 million, disqualify 84,000 students from receiving any Pell grants, and reduce the amount of Pell grants for hundreds of thousands more students.
Skyrocketing tuition and reliance on interest-carrying loans force some students to forgo college altogether, while others drop out or delay graduation.
By reducing tuition subsidies, public colleges violate their mandates to individuals and to society to provide a quality education to all who qualify. Many universities are retreating from their commitments to provide low-cost education for state residents, as they shift the balance of admissions more toward out-of-state applicants who pay substantially higher tuition. State schools have traditionally been the ladders to good jobs for students from working families. Soon, only the wealthiest will be able to afford the best public colleges and universities.
In fact, the Congressional Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance reports that by the end of this decade as many as 4.4 million college-qualified high school graduates will be unable to enroll in a four-year college, and two million will not go to college at all because they can't afford it.
Many students who do go to college have to work long hours, which adversely affects their education. A whopping 53 percent of low income freshmen who work more than thirty-five hours per week drop out and do not receive a degree. Contrast this with low income freshmen who work fewer hours: Of those who work one-to-fourteen hours per week, only 20 percent do not receive a degree, according to the Congressional Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance.
Those who graduate carry an enormous debt. The majority of students (64 percent) graduate with an average debt of almost $17,000, up significantly from $8,200 in 1989. Faced with repaying huge loans, students often reconsider their career plans. Our society suffers if students abandon lower paying occupations in teaching, social services, and health care in order to seek courses of study that lead to higher income jobs that speed loan repayment.
Budget cuts and tuition increases ripple throughout the academic community. They result in more hiring freezes and early retirements among full time faculty. Poorly paid and overworked contingent instructors replace them, classrooms become more crowded, and students have fewer courses to choose from.
Another widespread effect of budget cuts is to make public institutions more private, as they seek to supplement their loss of public monies with private gifts. This fits right in with the Bush Administration's agenda to privatize public services. And it will only make the promise of education for all more remote.
These days, many young people see the military as their only way to get an education. But Uncle Sam uses a bait and switch. The offer "Join the Army and earn up to $50,000 for college" does not often pan out. Almost 66 percent of recruits never get any college funding from the military (although they have paid into the college fund), and many who do qualify end up getting far less than $50,000.
To receive any education benefit from the Montgomery GI Bill and the Army College Fund or Navy Fund, enlistees must contribute $100 per month for the first twelve months of their tour. Even if recruits change their minds about attending college, the military will not cancel the monthly payment or refund the accumulated $1,200. The military bestows benefits only on those who receive a fully honorable discharge; "general" discharges and those "under honorable conditions" mean no college benefits.
To be eligible for the $50,000 benefit, enlistees must qualify (and only one in twenty enlistees do) for the Army or Navy College Fund by scoring in the top half of the military entry tests and enlisting in specific military occupations, typically unpopular jobs that have no transferable skills in the civilian job market. To receive the maximum amount, the military requires graduation with a four-year degree, achieved only by 15 percent of those who qualify. However, the majority of enlistees attend two-year schools and therefore can receive only a maximum of $7,788.
It's time for us now to demand that the federal government guarantee access to higher education, just as it does for K-12. This is the norm in nearly all other industrialized countries and even much of the impoverished Third World. Today, the intensifying crisis of affordability provides a perfect opportunity to insist on the principle of higher education as a basic right.
This issue resonates widely, and you can hear it finally in the Democratic Presidential race. John Edwards was the first Presidential candidate to address this issue. More than a year ago, he proposed a program that would pay all tuition costs for the first year for every student meeting academic standards.
John Kerry also has drawn attention to the crisis and has called for substantial increases in the Pell grant program.
Dennis Kucinich has made free college education for all a central plank in his campaign, and the other candidates have indicated their general support for the view that the federal government should have a responsibility to ensure access.
Most recently, Howard Dean unveiled an elaborate proposal that combines loan subsidies, tax credits, and grants with requirements of work and public service to offer tuition relief to many, if not most, students.
But a crucial limitation of most of the Democratic Presidential candidates' proposals is that they don't boldly assert access to higher education as a right.
Universities themselves are responding. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently announced a plan to cover the full costs of education for poor students without forcing them to take on loans. Students will have to work in state and federal work-study programs at a manageable ten-to-twelve hours per week.
However, it is a mistake to imagine that states can shoulder this burden on their own. Because of the budget crisis, Georgia, for instance, may discontinue its decade-old scholarship program for all students who maintain a B average.
The Debs-Jones-Douglass Institute, a nonprofit educational organization associated with the Labor Party, is building a national campaign to make higher education a right, available to everyone meeting admission standards and without regard to cost and ability to pay. The campaign calls for the federal government to pay all tuition and fees for all students attending two-year and four-year public colleges and universities. Period.
Early response to the campaign has underscored how great a concern the cost of higher education is with students and their families. The campaign for Free Higher Education already has been adopted by dozens of union bodies and other organizations, including large faculty and staff unions in Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and California, as well as the state federations of labor in Oregon and South Carolina.
We can generate a vibrant, exciting national movement around it on campuses, at workplaces, and in communities around the country.
This is an issue that can be won.
Adolph L. Reed Jr. is Professor of Political Science on the Graduate Faculty of Social and Political Science at the New School University, a member of the Interim National Council of the Labor Party, and national co-chair of the campaign for Free Higher Education (www.freehighered.org).
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