By Tim Young of Portland, Oregon. Tim is a former student body president at Portland State and a former member of the Oregon State Board of Higher Education.
"I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy." -- John Adams
The notion that education is only about training employees is fundamentally flawed. Education is about responsible citizens, in addition to the economic benefits of having an educated citizenry. One begets the others.
People with higher education degrees are statistically less likely to need help from the state; they pay more in taxes when employed and are more likely to get involved in their community. Business arguably like them too. Our cultures, our art, our understandings all benefit when more of us have access to a quality education of our choosing. The enormous passion of the human spirit to explore abstract thought and create tangible benefits for not just the individual, but the entire community should be nurtured more than it is today in this state, and in this country. In this globally competitive environment when it matters even more than it ever did, Americans are falling behind where used to lead the world in education. There are many reasons why this has happened, and pricing students out of college is one of them. Take the typical student at University of Oregon today as compared to in 1979. Adjusted for inflation, using the Consumer Price Index, "tuition at the University of Oregon has gone up 841 percent in the past 30 years."
It's not as if the men and women working at the cafeteria in the student union are all now driving a Ferrari, it's probably much more like you remember if you went to a public university in Oregon.
So why has tuition gone up so much, so fast? Why are we discouraging students from going to school by charging more than 8 times for it than we did 30 years ago? The biggest reason is that over the years, fewer and fewer dollars are being spent per student by Oregon taxpayers on higher education.
It's sad but true. We actually spend more on incarcerating people here than educating them now. Further, a dollar from every Oregon taxpayers simply goes farther than a dollar from only 86,546 individual students so when we pay even a dollar less as taxpayers, students pay many more dollars individuality to make up that loss.
Moreover, over those same thirty years Oregon's economy changed and so did the needs of the economy. Investments in education is a recognized component of long-term economic recovery strategies and on the national level, there is there is reason to be optimistic.
Recently, President Obama has launched a much needed effort "to ensuring that America will regain its lost ground and have the highest proportion of students graduating from college in the world by 2020. The President believes that regardless of educational path after high school, all Americans should be prepared to enroll in at least one year of higher education or job training to better prepare our workforce for a 21st century economy. To accomplish these overarching goals, the President is committed to increasing higher education access and success by restructuring and dramatically expanding college financial aid, while making federal programs simpler, more reliable, and more efficient for students. The President has proposed a plan to address college completion and strengthen the higher education pipeline to ensure that more students succeed and complete their degree. His plan will also invest in community colleges to equip a greater share of young people and adults with high-demand skills and education for emerging industries.
However in response to the president's plan Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University, said that:
"not everybody has the interest, the ability or the need to pursue a college degree...And more to the point, the government's own data show that most of the new jobs Obama talks about may require some kind of training, but not a college education...According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only five of the 25 fastest-growing occupations over the next decade require any kind of college degree. The rest include jobs like office clerks, home care and health aides, janitors and maids..."
Captured best in qualitative and quantitative analysis, rather than just quantitative alone, this argument ignores all the benefits which we take for granted that having a highly educated citizenry offers beyond individual employment. What about enrichment? What about a student finding a sense of purpose? What about a student learning to love learning for their entire lives and passing that on to their kids, maybe breaking a cycle of poverty for that family? What about being the first in your family to get a degree?
What's that worth to the individual, as well as to society? I'll tell ya: a lot.
Higher education might not be for everyone, but we are on our way to breaking tradition, and some would argue the America Dream itself, by continuing to price a critical mass of American students out of school and strapping many of the rest with unprecedented, crushing debt. While there is reason to be optimistic, we have to be realistic too. The American Dream of socioeconomic mobility and the survival of the middle class are threatened by this severe and consistent disinvestment in higher education. In Oregon, we have not addressed this and there are undesirable long-term and sort-term consequences, some of which we are reaping today.
For those that do go college, it cannot be overemphasized that many now carry an unprecedented amount of debt for the same degree students in 1979 got for a fraction of the cost students pay today while at the same time, there is more pressure than ever to get an education beyond high school.
Some say a bachelor's degree is worth what a high school diploma could get you 30 to 40 years ago. Further, going to college full-time and having a part-time job, and summer work, along with all available financial aid for today's student is a much different equation that it was for students 30 years ago. Tuition, fees, books, living expenses and expenses like child care all add up for today's student as it always has for generations, it's just so much more expensive for public higher education students today even after adjusting for inflation.
The legislature and the governor are doing everything they can for all state programs and services. Higher education students aren't alone during these difficult economic times, but they truly are our best hope for the future along with community college students. It's also true that education in Oregon is a preschool through grade 20 type of responsibility and much like a college campus uses different academic departments to look at the same problem, Oregonians can't just look at the value of higher education through a economic perspective alone or presume that the benefits of public higher education are restricted to the individual student, and use that to justify a 841 percent increase in tuition over 30 years.
That's not justifiable.
After thirty years of routine budget cuts, Oregon public universities are simply not the outrageously lavish places with cushy jobs and bureaucratic fat cats that watching the likes of Animal House may lead you to believe. Don't let the renovations to the stadiums fool you or let the salary of an individual university president lead you astray, the campuses are and have been doing much more with much less for a long time now.
For those that may believe higher education should be run like a business, it already is; just ask a temporary university employee working without benefits and full time employment, or a student seated in a sea of 250 other students, one assistant professor and two graduate students, in a class it took them two terms to finally get into because the university can't afford to offer more classes or a pay full professors' salaries, all while the student pays more than 8 times the cost of tuition 30 years ago. Or talk to the professor or dean that is scheduled 12 hour a day and works on weekends so much they don't even know the name of their daughter's soccer team anymore. They aren't the problem; neither is the soccer team.
The issue is the balance between the state and the student in paying for these beloved institutions, and that's why tuition has gone up so drastically. Public university revenues are severely off balance. The solution is more, and stable, state investment in student learning because this is not sustainable and no one wants to put their name on an operating budget or deferred maintenance costs however much the campuses appreciate the privately financed new buildings. Thank you donors; Oregon would be poorer for it if it were not for your generosity.
More money for anything may be the last thing any Oregonian wants to hear right now but this is not the first time it has been said; the problem is just more acute right now because when the economy is bad more people apply and qualify for admission at fine schools like Portland State University, at same time state appropriations go down. So cuts are made, tuition and fees raised and the cycle continues, the state moving farther and father away while the universities keep the doors open and give students the best quality education they can just at a higher and higher price. Meanwhile, the true impact of this unprecedented shift in financing and the resulting explosion of student debt sit like timed bombs best measured in decades, and understood only after they have gone off.
Education is not just about money, but it does matter. The students have arguably paid enough when looking at the historical picture and the universities can do even more with even less if we ask them to, they have gotten really good at it over the years, but is this the kind of legacy we want to leave for future generations? Are these our values? Even if projected job growth over the next 10 years is in areas that don't require a higher education that should not be an excuse to continue to disinvest in higher education for another decade. Oregonians deserve better. Americans deserve better. Students looking at 20 to 40 thousand dollars in debt and up after school think differently about college than a student in 1979 did, able to walk away from college with zero debt. We have been pulling the public rug out from underneath students for decades while the need for a quality education may be the greatest that it has ever been in history. Our global competitiveness has suffered, but so has unrealized human potential. Not everyone wants to go to college but those that can meet the requirements and have the desire. deserve every one of our tax dollars that they are lucky to get because it's a smart investment and frankly it's the American thing to do; helping others to learn to help themselves is what separates us from governments that thrive on the dependency and subservience of their people.
Liberty has costs, but it is worth the investment.
Oregon students need your support now more than ever and anything anyone can do in the short-term is appreciated. Scholarship donation information can be obtained from the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, 800-452-8807. Donations are tax-deductible.