Grading Colleges on Access to the American Dream

Leo Gerard
Grading Colleges on Access to the American Dream

Right now, eager 18-year-olds from across the country are Tweeting with bravado photos of their newly postered dorm rooms and scanning with private fear their freshmen class schedules. They’re embarking on a journey to capture their piece of the American Dream.

They’ll get a little help from economical e-textbooks and new-fangled apps that manipulate molecular models. But such technology is no match for the forces aligned against today’s young people – those in college as well as working class teens who dream of a degree but never enroll because they can’t conceive of paying the breathtaking – and for them, heartbreaking – costs.

To expand access to the dream, President Obama announced last week that he intends to grade colleges, just as colleges grade students. The U.S. Department of Education will evaluate the affordability of schools based on tuition, scholarships and financial aid. The department will look at outcomes including graduation rates, employment and salaries. Ultimately, Obama would like to reward colleges that earn good grades – those that graduate more students at lower costs. He proposes to do that by giving students who attend colleges with the best ratings larger federally guaranteed student loans. And he wants to encourage states to resume proper funding for public institutions. The idea is to restore equal opportunity to attain the American Dream.

The parents and grandparents of today’s 18-year-olds witnessed diminishing access to the dream. When they were teens, in the 1960s and 1970s, they could buy a year of college with three months’ labor in a factory or mill. Also, a summer in a mill with good union wages and benefits persuaded some that this was the life for them, no college necessary.

But too many mills are gone now, lost to government’s failure to enforce international trade regulations and to the corporate greed that swapped middle class wages for foreign sweatshop pittances. That means to attain the American Dream, even more youngsters now must get higher education or technical training.

And now, paying for that additional education is much more difficult. One of those old-time mill jobs – if it were still available – wouldn’t cover a year’s tuition now. Over the past three decades, the average tuition at a public four-year college increased more than 250 percent. Meanwhile, typical family income rose only 16 percent.

Tuition has risen even faster than health insurance costs. If the current trend continues through 2016, the cost of a public college diploma will have more than doubled in just 15 years.

Part of the reason for that is dubious expenditures by some schools, including paying coaches and college presidents multi-million dollar salaries and building fancy dormitories and gymnasiums. But a crucial factor is the withdrawal of state and local support for public institutions – from community colleges and trade schools to state-owned colleges and land grant universities. It dropped 24 percent nationally from 2001 to 2011. Adjusted for inflation, it reached a 25-year low in 2012.

Some states did this even as they cut taxes on the rich, jeopardizing attainment of the ideal of states supporting education to assure equal opportunity. Ohio, for example, cut funding for public colleges while eliminating its estate tax at a cost of $72 million a year.

The result of these cut backs is that governments shifted costs to the 70 percent of students who attend public colleges and universities as tuition skyrocketed.

For many teenagers, this foreclosed a college degree. It was too daunting to borrow tens of thousands of dollars then graduate into a shaky job market. For other young people, it has meant massive borrowing and debt.

Just a short time ago in the early 1990s, 45 percent of graduates borrowed money, including from family, banks and the government. Now, the figure is more than 66 percent, and that does not include students who borrow from family.

The amount they borrow hurts both them and the economy. The average borrower graduates $26,600 in debt.

The public policy organization Demos, which works for equal opportunity in the American economy and equal say in its democracy, studied the effect of student debt. It found college loans are a life-long drag, causing a wealth loss of four times the original debt amount.

Most student debt is to the federal government, which is now owed $1 trillion. Demos calculates that to be a $4 trillion lifetime wealth loss for those students. That’s significant both to them and to the economy. They won’t be able to buy as many new cars or refrigerators or infant strollers. So no matter how hard they worked to graduate college and labor on the job, their American Dream is permanently encumbered. In addition, their non-spending impairs the economy. And that diminishes everyone’s American Dream.

The United States has a long history of accepting education as a public responsibility. That principle gave America public-financed elementary and secondary schools, which provided the nation with an educated populace capable of enlightened self-governance. Publicly funded colleges and universities gave America teachers, engineers, architects, doctors and lawyers who helped build and care for a strong country based on the rule of law. These publicly supported institutions also provided scientists and researchers who discovered cures for dread diseases, put astronauts on the moon and invented the cell phone.

After World War II, Congress helped veterans get training and higher education, and a huge portion attended publicly supported colleges. That led to a period of widely shared prosperity. In the past two decades, as higher education became less and less accessible because of cost, income inequality grew.

America cannot afford to return to the days when only the scions of the wealthiest could attend college. The nation is most prosperous when prosperity is most shared. The administration’s plan to grade colleges and encourage resumed state support for public institutions will help restore equal access to the American Dream.

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