Orange Alert on Education

“I am somehow less concerned with the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than I am with the near certainty that people of equal talent lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” — Stephen Jay Gould

I share the view espoused by Gould, which is why I am concerned about how the working poor in the U.S. are increasingly being priced out of higher education.  As students protesting against cutbacks in education and increases in tuition have been saying all along, today’s crisis reflects more the misplaced priorities of the ruling class than crude compulsions of economic conditions.

According to a recent report by the College Board, in-state tuition and fees at public four-year institutions have increased, on average, by 6.5% in 2009-10 relative to 2008-09.  Among them, about 15% of students attend institutions where tuition and fees have increased by 12% or more, a hefty increase even in the best of times.  However, even this pales in comparison with the 32% increase in tuition and fees approved last week by the Regents of the University of California.

A common rationale offered by college administrators is that their hands are tied: Federal funding of education has drastically reduced, and they have to somehow account for the shortfall.  And they do have a point.  As a percentage of total revenues of public degree-granting institutions, federal government outlays have fallen from 45.6% in 1980-81 to 29.5% in 2005-06.  During the same period, the contribution of tuition and fees to total revenues has increased from 12.9% to 17.0%.  In fact, tuition and fees at public four-year institutions have been increasing steadily since the late 1970s.  From 1979 to 1989, they went up in inflation-adjusted dollars at an annual rate of 3%, increasing to 4% for the next decade and 5% for the current decade (with the rate of increase shooting up to 6.4% and 6.5% in the last two years).

Starting in the late 1970s, even as education costs were on the rise, wages went into decline.  Inflation adjusted wages fell by about 12% from 1974 to 2004, and the educational burden became even more onerous for the poorest stratum of the working class.  According to a report by the Southern Regional Education Board:

In 2006, the costs of a year at a public university, including room and board, were 8 percent of income for U.S. households in the top fifth of incomes  — 2 percentage points higher than in 1986.  Costs for households in the middle fifth, however, were 29 percent of income — 12 percentage points higher than in 1986.  Costs for households in the lowest fifth were a staggering 125 percent of income — 53 percentage points higher than in 1986.

Another study reports that “nearly one-half of all college-qualified low- and moderate-income high school graduates do not enroll in a four-year program of college study because of financial barriers.”  Those who do enroll graduate with ever-increasing debts.  For instance, in 2007-08, about 61% of students in four-year undergraduate public schools graduated with some debt.  The cumulative average of student debt in 2007-08 was $19,839, and it had been rising at a rate of 5.6% since 2003-04.  More recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that federal student-loan disbursements in 2008-09 grew about 25% over the previous year to $75.1 billion.  Such high levels of indebtedness followed by low wages after graduation could lead to default and financial ruin.

Meanwhile, college administrators continue to regurgitate the same old mantra of cost being no barrier for deserving students.  University of California President Mark Yudof, for instance, has been talking up the Blue and Gold program as if it compensates for the 32% tuition hike.  This program, he claims, guarantees that “no student with a family income below $60,000 would pay any fees, and this guarantee will continue in 2010.”  A factsheet on the UC website reveals the program to be much more modest with an annual budget of $3.1 million and only benefiting students receiving other financial aid.  According to the UC-AFT, this program pays any difference between the cost of tuition and fees and any scholarship/grant that a student receives.  The program also comes with a caveat: it will be evaluated annually “and its continuation beyond 2009-10 for both new and enrolled students will be subject to the University’s determination of financial feasibility”!

The current state of affairs regarding tuition and scholarships/grants can be summarized thus: tuition has been increasing every year and this is making it increasingly difficult for all students, particularly those from low-income families, to complete four years of college education.  A large number of need- and merit-based grants and scholarships exist, but there usually is no guarantee that a student could avail of these all four years.  Even for the students who receive them, the grants and scholarships might not add up to the tuition cost, and might not also keep pace with steep tuition hikes which have now become the norm.  A lot of students thus graduate mired in debt.

What’s the way out?  For those of us who believe that education is a fundamental human right, and that all humans should have opportunities to develop their creative potential, the most obvious solution is to ask the state to take up the tuition burden and make undergraduate education free so that students don’t have to fight for the crumbs thrown at them.  But is this practical?

According to the Digest of Education Statistics (2008), the total enrolment in public degree-granting institutions in Fall 2006 was 13.18 million, and that in private institutions was 4.58 million (see Table 186).  According to a recent College Board report, Trends in College Pricing 2009, in-state tuition and required fees at public four-year institutions average $7,020 in 2009-10.  Assuming a total of 20 million students and a tuition rate of $7,000 per year, free undergraduate tuition for all interested students would mean a federal expenditure of $140 billion, which is less than 1% of the GDP.  At a time when we have gotten used to trillion-dollar bailouts and wars, wouldn’t the expenditure of a couple hundred billion dollars to unlock and nourish the creativity that abounds in young American minds be a refreshing change?

Beside the costs of a university education, there is also the issue of control.  Control of public universities is currently vested in bodies such as the Board of Regents, Board of Trustees, etc.  The Regents/Trustees are almost always men (and much less likely, women) of great wealth from the corporate world and are appointed by the Governor of the state for favors rendered in the past.  In the words of the Free Speech Movement:

Taken as a group, the Regents are representatives of only one thing — corporate wealth.  As major employers and as Regents of the University, they control more than money; they make money through the control of other men.  They direct the productive energies of hundreds of thousands of human beings and set the limits to their opportunities for creative and satisfying achievements through work and study.

Recent years have seen numerous student protests against the management of universities (Presidents, Trustees/Regents, etc.) demanding a more democratic governance, but the ownership structure has withstood all challenges.  The 32% tuition hike imposed by the UC Regents has opened them to a lot of scrutiny, and critics have charged them with a shift in priorities from state-funded instruction to privately funded construction.  In addition to raising in-state tuition, efforts seem to be afoot to increase the number of out-of-state students, who would bring in more tuition per head.  Shrewd businessmen as they are, the Regents seem to be on the lookout for cheap workers (teachers, graduate assistants, and all other workers in the university) and high-end consumers (students) who wouldn’t mind paying more.  How long will they get what they want?

Ravi is a UIUC alumnus.  A very different version of this article was published in February 2004 in the student-run newspaper at UIUC (Daily Illini).

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