Will Tuition Become A Campaign Issue?

Will Tuition Become A Campaign Issue?

With the twin issues of Iraq and the economy dueling for attention in the upcoming presidential campaign, will issues of access to higher education become a campaign issue? It ought to — data suggest that while as many as 60 percent of “new” jobs require postsecondary education, less than a third of our nation’s over-25 population holds the level of education that qualifies them for these jobs. The hue and cry about outsourcing and H-1B visas (which allow immigrants to come to the United States to hold technical jobs that are unfilled) indicates our concern about the viability of the labor market and our economy’s ability to generate “good” jobs for people in this country. But the issue of access to and affordability of higher education must be paired with our concerns about employment.
Yet the Bush administration has done little to stem the spiraling costs of higher education. The 2005 budget it submitted raises the level of Pell Grants less than 10 percent, from $3,750 in 2001 to $4,050 in 2005. And Pell Grants cover a decreasing percentage of tuition fees for low and moderate-income students. In California, for example, undergraduate fees at the University of California rose by 14 percent (with graduate fees rising by 40 percent), and a $4,050 Pell Grant fails to cover tuitions, never mind room and board fees. California might be perceived as an exception, since the budget crisis there reduced freshman enrollments by 10 percent while increasing fees and sending some 7,600 students who qualified for the University of California to community colleges with deferred admissions. But New Hampshire tuitions rose by 28 percent between 2001 and 2004, and will rise by another 11 percent next year. Mississippi fees rose by between 5 percent and 12 percent in the state’s public universities and colleges.
Some private colleges with stratospheric tuition levels saw increases in the single digits. Harvard, for example, increased tuition, room and board by only 5.2 percent (to $39,880), and Duke’s tuition rose by 4.5 percent (to $39,240). Too many state universities had double-digit tuition increases for 2004-2005, including the University of Massachusetts, the University of Virginia, the University of Kansas and Ohio State University. Other campuses have kept tuition costs down, but cut services. One Oregon campus, for example, closed its library to contain costs!
The Bush tax cuts, and the fiscal pressure they place on states are clearly part of the reason that tuitions are rising so rapidly. But attitudes toward public support for higher education have also clearly shifted, with higher education being seen more as a personal investment good than a public good. The shift from grant to loan in financial aid is but one example of changing attitudes. The attempt by some to position support for higher education as a class-based subsidy is another. And the lack of understanding about the key role college professors play in shaping the future work force is yet another. At too many campuses, faculty members have not received raises in several years and take on increasing workloads in response to diminishing higher education resources.
Yet our nation’s economic growth partly depends on the quality of the work force, and the quality of the work force depends on the access and affordability of higher education. From this perspective, we ought to move toward providing more public funding toward higher education, not less. Instead, we have already spent $151 billion on the War in Iraq, and we are likely to spend more despite the highly publicized “transfer of power.” If higher education could get just a fraction of the money Halliburton got for meals it didn’t serve, we might see more reasonable tuition increases at public colleges and universities.
Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) plan for higher education includes a college tuition tax credit, a $25 billion grant to states to defer education costs, and a “Service for College” program that would allow students to work off tuition bills by serving in the public sector as teachers, police officers, or in other “key roles.” While far more sensitive to the requirements of higher education than any plan offered by the Bush administration, Kerry must detail the ways he plans to pay for his program. Still, as the campaign evolves, it will be interesting to see the candidates and their surrogates compare and contrast the two approaches to higher education. It is also important for those in higher education to offer their vision for a future that includes access, affordability and diversity. The fact that African Americans and Latinos lag behind others in educational attainment is also an issue that must be addressed.
Concerns about foreign policy and the economy might well make the issue of higher education a footnote in this campaign. Yet, the status of higher education, especially in public colleges, is intricately intertwined with issues of economic growth. Stakeholders in higher education must insist that political candidates at the federal and state level address these issues. 



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