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Funding Higher Education

July 20, 2013

The way in which we fund higher education in this country is a disgrace that helps to exacerbate inequality in income and wealth in our society. The recent inability of Congress to meet a deadline to avoid doubling  the interest rates on student loans is a perfect example of this. The fact that we require students to bear the brunt of the burden of funding their own college education is a major part of the problem. Student loan debt has recently eclipsed credit card debt as the largest source of personal debt in our country. By failing to address this, Congress is making matters worse. Maintaining the status quo from last year is better than doubling rates as provided by current law, but fails to ease this trend.

A college degree is seen as a means by which individuals may advance themselves economically in our society by learning the skills and knowledge required to get a good job and start a rewarding career in a field of their choice. This education does not benefit only the individual receiving it, however. Business and industry also profit greatly by being able to draw upon a highly educated and knowledgeable workforce. Claims that not enough persons with the appropriate skills to perform some jobs are available here is often used by industry to request help in acquiring the necessary skills from foreign workers.

Yet, business and industry do as little as possible to provide funding for the education of the workers they need to prosper in today’s economy. The burden instead is largely placed on the individual receiving the education and/or their parents. While this education is not mandatory, as is much of primary and secondary education in this country, it is often required in order to move towards a career in most of the more lucrative sectors of our economy. Also unlike most of primary and secondary education in this country, most of higher education has been privatized. Public funding of higher education has tumbled radically as costs have risen dramatically in recent years and budget cutting has seen education as an easy target.

As time has gone on, more and more student financial aid for colleges and universities has come in the form of loans that need to be repaid by the student with interest after graduation. This is seen as acceptable, as the students are able to pay back the loans with the income from jobs acquired by them upon graduation. This is problematic for several reasons. Not all students need to take out loans.  Those who can earn scholarships for athletics or other reasons such as future military service can also avoid the loan route. Obviously, those from wealthier families can afford the tuition, books and fees without loans. Why should it cost my children, personally, more than it costs Mitt Romney’s sons to get the same education? This leaves the vast majority of those seeking to further their education at a decided disadvantage when compared to their more privileged counterparts. So much for a level playing field.

In years past, much more funding was available at both the state and federal level for grants and work-study. This funding has either dried up or not kept pace with the rising costs of attending these institutions of higher learning. The trend, unfortunately, has been towards even less public funding of primary and secondary education as well. In terms of fairness and equality of opportunity in education, it would benefit society as a whole more to maintain and increase such funding to local schools as well as to institutions of higher learning. To make matters worse, the economy has not helped in terms of ensuring that people can put their degrees to use in getting jobs that will enable them to pay back the loans. Some with college degrees in various fields find themselves forced to accept employment is sectors of the economy which definitely have nothing to do with their education and at far lower pay levels than they hoped to achieve when taking the loans.

Some in Congress see increasing the interest rate on student loans as a good way to help reduce the debt and budget deficit. Rather than increasing taxes on corporation or the wealthy who can afford it and definitely benefit from maintaining the status quo, they choose to pass the burden onto those who can least afford it, maintaining them at a competitive disadvantage with their more fortunate peers in perpetuity. Thus, the rich continue to get richer and the not-so-rich have to work harder to tread water, increasing economic inequality more and more with the passage of time. Economic mobility in our society has become more of a joke with the passage of time since the onset of the Reagan Revolution, and the perpetuation of these policies only bodes ill for any improvement in the near future.

In the interest of fairness and equality of education, it is in our interest to address these issues of funding for higher education and make it more accessible to more people who desire to improve their lot in life through hard work and acquiring the needed skills and knowledge to excel in the economy of the future. Education, including a college education, should be viewed as a right and not a privilege in this economy. Equality access requires a more equitable distribution of the costs than currently exists.

Some states are trying to move in this direction, such as Oregon’s example in the article links below. Moves to further privatize education and increase the private profit to be gained by educating our people can only result in more economic and social stratification of our population in the future. Budget hawks need to be reminded of the benefits of an educated populace and become more willing to tax those who wish to freeload off our educational system to pad their pockets without paying their fair share. Higher taxes don’t need to be the only solution, but can be a part of one that makes more sense than putting the entire burden on those who can least afford to bear it.

Suggested Further Readings:

It’s College Students vs. the Corporate Machine – and the Machine’s Winning

Why Have Student Loans At All? Let’s Get the Burdens of Debt Off College Students’ Backs – And Make Wall Street Pick up the Tab

An Oregon Trail to End Student Debt

Oregon Students Fight Back Against Debt and Win

Instead of Providing Free Education, Senators Propose Raising Costs of College

The Student Victims of Washington’s Deficit Disorder

America Feeds the Rich

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