Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Very Educational

I’ve got 2 years left before I will have to stroke my first installment check to the college of my oldest daughter’s choice.  I have been diligently saving for the day, but like many families, my diligence will most likely fall many thousands of dollars short.  The dream of the athletic scholarship died when she stopped playing competitive soccer at the age of 6 (she was distracted by the on-field dandelions) so the financial shortfall for her continuing education will fall to me and my daughter in the form of student loans.  For this reason, the positions that the presidential candidates express on the issue of college and college costs are of particular interest to me.  I will soon be in the category of Struggling Family smack in the middle of this cost and debt crisis.

On March 6th of this year, a mere 7 weeks ago, presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney expressed his view on how to best cope with rising college expenses – shop around for the best price.  At a town hall in Youngstown, Ohio, a high school senior asked Romney what he would do as President to confront rising college costs.  The student was worried, and rightly so.  College loan debt now exceeds credit card debt in this country, and we’re talking in trillions now.
Mitt listened to the question and then offered the youngster a free education on severe conservatism.

“It would be popular for me to stand up and say I’m going to give you government money to pay for your college, but I’m not going to promise that.  Don’t just go to one that has the highest price. Go to one that has a little lower price where you can get a good education. And hopefully you’ll find that. And don’t expect the government to forgive the debt that you take on.”

This view is woefully simplistic, but sufficiently severe.  No wonder the popular wisdom says that Romney is out of touch.  Shopping for a college education isn’t like shopping for a car.  You can’t find a reliable, previously owned college education on Craigslist with the closing line on the ad, “Make me an offer to attend my college.”      

All the colleges are expensive.   Since 1980, the cost of public universities (the kind that 80% of students attend), adjusted for inflation, has tripled.   State support for public colleges and universities has fallen by about 26 percent per full-time student in that time.  The difference is shouldered by students and their families.  If Romney’s reasoning is that the market has determined that college is only for the wealthy in America, well, I might counter by saying that his vision represents a threat to our national security – our national economic security.   

A country with fewer college graduates is a threat to our long term survival as an economic superpower.  More and more jobs in the knowledge economy require an advanced degree, and students in other nations are getting them.  Once the workforce in China or India becomes the workforce with the higher level of education, it won’t be manual labor jobs that become outsourced in droves.  It will be all the high paying jobs that require a level of academic and scientific expertise that our kids cannot afford to attain.

Adding insult to injury, many of these foreign nationals gain their degrees right here, and then promptly skip the after party and take their sheepskin back home.  So when I say that Mitt’s view that students just “shop for a cheaper option” is simplistic, this is what I mean. 

The other message that came through loud and clear was that the myth of the “ruggedly self-reliant American” is part of Mitt’s core belief system and messaging.  It does not take a village in Romney’s America.  It takes hard work and individualism, but a trust fund to pay for college would help.  I’ll bet you $10,000 that Romney didn’t need to navigate the student loan process while earning his 2 Harvard degrees.

On the bright side, Romney didn’t warn the student that his dream of college made him a “snob” or that his attendance at college would doom him to a life within the cult of liberalism that celebrates such evil ideas as “diversity” and “interdependence”.  By omitting this, he must be pivoting to the left to earn the support of independent voters.  Welcome, kinder and gentler Mitt.

Yesterday, the pivot continued and Romney publicly supported a socialist, anti-colonial Kenyan fiscal plan to address spiraling interest rates on outstanding student loan balances.  Romney agreed with Obama that Congress should extend the student loan interest rate cut enacted in 2007 which is due to expire at the end of the year.  This will prevent a scheduled doubling of the rate.  I guess during the general election campaign, Romney can help Americans with the college debt they voluntarily accepted, which is infinitely better than employing the Bain Capital strategy of declaring bankruptcy and walking away.

Maybe he is evolving in his thinking and sees the value to our national health of a post-college life without the stranglehold of debt.  Maybe not, though.  Romney will not back away from the student aid cuts included in the Paul Ryan’s budget.  These cuts will help those who will now be unable to attend college in this country learn the “dignity of work” in a low wage laborer position while living in their parent’s basement, the same way Mitt learned the value of a dollar.

No, college shouldn’t be free, but if you ignore the high societal cost that we are now experiencing because of college tuition costs and high student loan costs then you are missing the big picture…and an opportunity to address something that could lead to long term national economic stability.

Without a plan from our next President, here’s what we can expect – college prices will continue to rise, students will take out bigger and bigger loans, student debt will starve spending and investment, and fewer and fewer people will get a college education.  Jobs and wages will be outsourced and our position as world leader will be a historical footnote.  That does not describe “Morning in America” to me. 

Obama for his part is talking about the issue as a national problem as opposed to a personal failing of lazy selfish students, and for that, he gets more credit than Romney.  In the State of the Union, he threatened to withhold federal dollars from colleges that do not get control of their skyrocketing tuition costs.  Student loan assistance was included in the stimulus bill.  Frankly, these efforts by themselves will not solve the larger problem, and there is still a meaningful debate to take place about the role of state versus federal educational support (probably require some balance of both), but that will not happen until after November, if at all.

What we need is a War on Under-Education...or a War on Tuition…anything other than a War on Women or Dogs or Singing Styles.  That would be smart.  I hope a real discussion happens within the next 2 years, before that first invoice arrives at my door.

If not, it’s the University of Craigslist.  Wonder if they have a football team…

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