Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Assault on Public Education Continues: Universities

The establishment of universal public education was one of the greatest accomplishments of the United States. It led the way in establishing the principle that everyone had a right to an education. A system of universal education works best for a society if it is uniformly available. Ideally, every citizen pays into the system proportional to their ability to pay, and everyone benefits equally from the system. Some European countries have come closer to this ideal by extending universal education to their university systems, but limiting access to those who demonstrate the greatest ability to perform at a high academic level. Alternate educational paths are provided for the remainder. 

The US has never attained that ideal, nor actively sought it. It has always had a powerful minority that was happy to retain quality higher education as a privilege for the wealthy. Expensive private universities for the elite were always an alternative to the lower-cost public universities. Such a mixed system is inherently unstable given that society will always possess some degree of income inequality. The wealthy will always be able to bid up the cost of their elite, private education to the point that only they can afford it. The other extreme, the poor, must depend on the more wealthy to be willing to pay sufficiently into the public system to provide an equivalent, or near equivalent, level of education.

This dual system worked well for many years as support for public schools was sufficient to make excellent universities available at low cost. An ascendant conservative faction has supported movement even further away from universal public education by favoring lower public spending, various forms of private enterprise, and market-influenced approaches. Translation: the quality of your education should be based on how much you are able to pay.

Rising costs for education coupled with lower public support has left students who are not wealthy enough to cover the costs with only the option to take on debt—over a trillion dollars of debt as of 2011. An article in The Economist provides this chart.

The situation is nicely addressed in a New York Times article by Andrew Martin and Andrew W. Lehren: A Generation Hobbled by the Soaring cost of College.

"About two-thirds of bachelor’s degree recipients borrow money to attend college, either from the government or private lenders, according to a Department of Education survey of 2007-8 graduates; the total number of borrowers is most likely higher since the survey does not track borrowing from family members." "By contrast, 45 percent of 1992-93 graduates borrowed money; that survey included family borrowing as well as government and private loans."

The degree of borrowing varies widely.

"For all borrowers, the average debt in 2011 was $23,300, with 10 percent owing more than $54,000 and 3 percent more than $100,000, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports."

Economic difficulties coupled with anti-tax sentiments have resulted in higher costs for an education at a state college and lower public support.

"Nationally, state and local spending per college student, adjusted for inflation, reached a 25-year low this year, jeopardizing the long-held conviction that state-subsidized higher education is an affordable steppingstone for the lower and middle classes. All the while, the cost of tuition and fees has continued to increase faster than the rate of inflation, faster even than medical spending."

"From 2001 to 2011, state and local financing per student declined by 24 percent nationally. Over the same period, tuition and fees at state schools increased 72 percent, compared with 29 percent for nonprofit private institutions, according to the College Board."

To maintain parity, spending on college education should have been increasing, merely to match increases in population. These cuts were not motivated by economic concerns alone. Conservative Republicans have been hostile to the notion that access to higher education is a right.

"....the sharp drop in per-student spending also reflects a change: an increasing number of lawmakers voted to transfer more of the financial burden of college from taxpayers to students and their families."

It has been argued that $50,000 is a small price to pay for an education that should yield greater earnings over a lifetime. Such arguments miss the point. It is to society’s benefit to make higher education as widely available as possible. We hear over and over that positions go unfilled, or that they are offshored, because we suffer from a dearth of acceptable candidates. How is that issue addressed by making entry into education more difficult?

The students who negotiate the system by accumulating debt can be economically limited for a decade or more as they try to pay off school debts.

"....economists say, growing student debt hangs over the economic recovery like a dark cloud for a generation of college graduates and indebted dropouts. A study of recent college graduates conducted by researchers at Rutgers University and released last week found that 40 percent of the participants had delayed making a major purchase, like a home or car, because of college debt, while slightly more than a quarter had put off continuing their education or had moved in with relatives to save money. Roughly half of the surveyed graduates had a full-time job."

Our schools could do a better job of preparing students for the environment they will encounter after they graduate. And they could do a better job of counseling students on the true costs they are incurring when they take out loans.

"Much like the mortgage brokers who promised pain-free borrowing to homeowners just a few years back, many colleges don’t offer warnings about student debt in the glossy brochures and pitch letters mailed to prospective students. Instead, reading from the same handbook as for-profit colleges, they urge students not to worry about the costs."

The most troubling aspect of this issue is that we seem to be breaking faith with the nature of society itself. Societies form because people realize that they are much safer as a member of a group than as an individual. It is an implicit contract in societies that the strong will contribute to the protection of the weak and that the wealthy will contribute to the welfare of the poor. The notion that everyone should pay for their own education is another instance in which conservatives have forced a retreat from the concept of societal assistance and pushed us towards a pay-to-play posture where everyone is expected to personally fund whatever service they receive. Friendships cannot endure such an arrangement; families cannot operate under that rule; tribes and clans would dissolve if such a requirement was operative. Why would anyone suppose that a modern, complex society could thrive?

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