“ROMNEY: The legislature in my state came together and said, ‘You know what, anyone that’s willing to serve in the National Guard, we’ll provide for tuition and fees for four years of college to make sure you get that start.’ So if you’re willing to serve, then we can be of more help. But my best advice is find a great institution of higher learning, find one that has the right price, and shop around. In America, this idea of competition, it works! [...] I want to make sure that every kid in this country that wants to go to college gets the chance to go to college. If you can’t afford it, scholarships are available, shop around for loans, make sure you go to a place that’s reasonably priced, and if you can, think about serving the country ’cause that’s a way to get all that education for free.” [ThinkProgress](emphasis added)
Go shopping? Why does this sound vaguely reminiscent of President George W. Bush’s response to the disruption created by the attacks on September 11th 2001? Could we have a pattern here, a pattern in which all major decisions are to be predicated on the monetary value of citizen participation?
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with making some well grounded financial decisions about containing costs associated with higher education based on the prices — yes, a community college English 101 course is likely to be much cheaper than a university’s version of the same class. However, it’s to be hoped that the “price” isn’t the only consideration. Such cost driven thinking reminds me of those whom Oscar Wilde described as cynics, those who “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
Suppose a youngster seeks a career in journalism? There are three acknowledged “great institutions of higher learning” in this category: Columbia, University of California-Berkeley, University of Missouri-Columbia. We should also consider Northwestern, Syracuse, and Ohio University. There are others, listed here, to which a serious journalism student might give consideration. What about a career in engineering? Our hypothetical young person might consider these schools among the top ten in that field: California Institute of Technology, MIT, Purdue, and Stanford. The point is that what parents and students should be considering is the best match of student interests to the institution’s capacity to deliver a curriculum which will prepare the young person for success in his or her chosen field. All too often this isn’t the first question.
All too often the first question is: What can we afford? Just as often parents are invited to take out loans, and students are told to collect scholarships, take out more loans, and graduate into an economy in which the repayment of loans becomes ever more difficult.
In the Financialist World of candidate Romney, the manic Mr. Market is supposed to take care of these issues via “competition.” Everything is a Contest! Price determines value. Then a cheap education becomes the best education? If the “value” of the education is predicated upon the economic success of the graduate, then we’re not placing very much “value” on several essential fields.
The Department of Labor estimates that we will need approximately 161,200 social workers between 2010 and 2020. The growth rate in this field is calculated at 25%, well above average. However, the 2010 median pay for social workers is figured at $42,480 per year. That would be median pay, not starting pay. Starting pay comes in around $25,525 annually. [Payscale] How, pray tell, do we train the number of social workers we’re going to need if they can’t start paying off the student loans accrued during their training?
The outlook for bio-medical engineers is even more optimistic, the growth rate in that sector is a hefty 62%, and it looks like we will need about 9,700 more of these engineers by 2010. [DoL] There are a couple of routes to the $85,000 median earnings. One, a person can get an undergraduate degree in bio-medical engineering from an accredited program, or secondly get an undergraduate degree with graduate training in the field. This isn’t going to be cheap. That median salary makes it look as though paying off the student loans would be a snap, but as with our example of the social worker, the entry level jobs can be expected to yield far less — about $41,100. [Payscale]
How did we get into this bind, a bind in which we need college educated individuals to fill positions in fields as far ranging as bio-medical engineering and social work, but we find such training increasingly unaffordable?
William Moseley, Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota offers this explanation:
“But just when the US needs it most, public support for higher education in the US is being rolled back at unprecedented rates. In my own state of Minnesota (long known for its well-educated workforce), our college and university system now only receives 18 per cent of its revenue from the state, down from over 50 per cent in the 1970s. Other universities, such as the University of Michigan and Penn State, receive only 6 per cent and 4 per cent respectively of their budgets from state legislatures. On average, state funding for higher education has fallen by 40 per cent since 1980 (with declines accelerating in the past five years).” (emphasis added)
The problem isn’t confined to Minnesota, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, because Iowa is facing the same issue:
“In 2001, state funding was about 64 percent of the education budgets at the UI, ISU and UNI, while tuition was 31 percent. Those numbers have basically swapped in the past decade, with tuition at 58.3 percent of the funding and state appropriations at 35.7 percent in the current fiscal year. Iowa also had the largest five-year decline on average when compared with neighboring Midwest states. Iowa’s public institutions received $4,481 per full-time student in fiscal 2011, a 25.3 percent decline since 2006, according to the report.”
Nor is this problem of shifting the costs of education from the states to the students and parents unique to the American middle west, it’s a national issue:
“According to research conducted by the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO), educational appropriations per full-time student reached a high of $7,961 in FY 2001, followed by four years of decline from FY 2002 to FY 2005 (after the 2001 recession). Per student funding then increased in fiscal years 2006, 2007 and 2008, recovering to $7,220. In FY 2009, appropriations per student fell by 4 percent due to the onset of the latest recession and declined to $6,928 per student as states struggled with massive revenue shortfalls. Appropriations per student remained lower in FY 2009 (in constant dollars) than in most years since FY 1980.” [NCSL pdf]
Worse still, the Ryan Budget, endorsed by candidate Romney as “marvelous,” would make the shift from governmental to parental assumption of education expenses ever more stark. The Ryan Budget assumes the reduction of Pell Grants by $170 billion over the next ten years, exacerbating an already dire situation:
“The plan proposed by Ryan (R-Wis.), who chairs the House Budget Committee, would chop away at Pell grant eligibility, thereby reducing total Pell grants by about $170 billion over the next decade; allow the interest rate for federally subsidized Stafford loans to double; end student loan interest subsidies for those still in school; and make Pell spending discretionary — instead of mandatory — allowing further cuts down the line. Pell grants, the largest source of federal financial aid, currently help more than 9 million students to afford college. Following last year’s budget standoffs, next year’s maximum Pell grant of $5,645 will cover just one-third of the average cost of college — the smallest share ever.” [HuffPo]
And Pell Grants aren’t the only problem with the Ryan/Romney Plan. Note that the Ryan Budget assumes that student loan interest rates will double, and students loan interest subsidies for those still in school will end.
The de-funding of American higher education is what happens when (1) we have strapped state legislatures still trying to dig out from the $10.2 Trillion debacle created by the players in the Wall Street Casino during the Housing Bubble, (2) we adopt the Manic Mr. Market valuation of education as a commodity and not as a source of community improvement, and (3) we adopt the patently self-destructive argument that higher education is a luxury, and those who want luxuries should pay for them by themselves.
This de-funding is also a function of an economic vision in which it is considered more important to protect the subsidies paid to highly profitable energy corporations, to protect the earnings of those who speculated in the stock market more than the earnings of brick layers and construction contractors, and to protect the income of millionaires and billionaires, than it is to invest in our most precious recourse in the nation — our kids.
If we want to grow the U.S. economy, then we need to note that the unemployment rate for those with a high school diploma now stands at 8.0, while the unemployment rate for those holding a college diploma is at 4.2%. [DoL] In terms of annual earnings the differentiation is obvious, young people with a high school diploma can expect $25,000 annual wages, while their college educated cohorts can expect $40,100. [NCES]
Policy which undermines the capacity of our citizens to secure a college education either for themselves or for their children is a clear path to economic stagnation or decline. It’s a path that cannot be improved by “going shopping.”