My Turn: College education is a community good, not a luxury item

  • The University of Massachusetts Amherst FILE PHOTO

Published: 10/2/2022 8:56:01 PM

I agree with writer Richard Fein (“Student debt cancellation is bad policy,” Sept. 26) that Biden’s student debt relief program is awkward, probably counter-productive, and, ultimately, no solution at all. The student debt crisis is a result of the federal government drastically reducing funding to public colleges and universities back during the Reagan administration, the argument being the same specious and pernicious one that Mr. Fein trots out, namely that college grads make substantially more money than those without a degree. That may, on average, be true, but with two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. I am quite sure my plumber makes a good deal more than I ever have. Teachers, nurses, and social workers, professions we desperately need, are required to have not only an undergraduate degree but a master’s as well, and these folks do not earn a lot of money. College education is a community good, not a luxury item like a beach house or a fancy car. The more educated people we have, the more prosperous our society will be, but not if same are burdened with life long debt. We can also hope that more educated people will militate against the collapse into unreality that is presently gripping a substantial portion of our citizenry.

Sometimes people in Massachusetts have a hard time understanding the immense value of public higher education because the state, being one of our oldest, is so dominated by private institutions, many of them the most prestigious in the country. But as a Midwesterner brought up in the cradle of the Land Grant College Act, I assure you that public universities can be among the very best. Two of my acquaintances earned undergraduate or graduate degrees from either Michigan State or University of Michigan and now teach at Harvard, so the idea that you can’t get ahead if you go to a public university is nonsense.

Back before anyone ever took Ronald Reagan seriously, money from the federal government was funneled to state legislatures, which, in turn, used it to support their public colleges and universities, and these state legislatures kept a tight watch on how that money was spent. Unions, like the UAW in Michigan, kept a tight watch on the legislatures and made sure public universities stayed accessible for their members’ children. In Michigan, the University of Michigan was required by state law to admit any Michigan resident in the top 10% of their high school class; Michigan State was required to admit anyone in the top 30%. These universities, especially Michigan State, were quick to weed out freshmen not up to doing university-level work. They weren’t about to waste state money on students unable to meet the institution’s academic requirements. The result was that students went to college based on their willingness to work hard rather than their willingness to take out big loans.

After the “Reagan Revolution” cut public universities loose, the paradigm changed. Public, like private, colleges depended on students bringing tons of money with them. Student retention was paramount. Remedial programs flourished. Administration budgets skyrocketed, and college presidents were expected to be CEOs, business people with CEO-level salaries, not scholars as they had been in the past. Tuition went through the roof. The result has been disastrous. The angst among college-bound high school students is enormous. (We Recorder readers experienced it close up as young Maddie Raymond poured out her anguish on these pages.) The student debt crisis is huge. And large swaths of American youngsters are denied the possibility of going to college at all. Smart graduates, who ought to be doing something better with their lives, go into “finance,” maybe because they’ve made a god out of money, but often because it’s the only way to pay off their student loans. When I graduated from college, it was hard to find a teaching job because that was the preferred career for many graduates in the 1970s, a career they could afford because they had no debt. Today we are begging for teachers.

Why do you think the MAGA crowd hates “elites” so much? Because we “elites” have gone to college, and they have not. The “Reagan Revolution” not only cut off funding for public colleges, it did all it could to destroy unions, the strongest advocates for public higher education in the country as well as the only advocates for decent wages and working conditions. The Republican Party, which destroyed the upward mobility of the working class, now gathers these folks into its arms, comforts them with false promises, encourages their resentment, and tolerates their conspiracy fantasies. It’s sickening to say the least.

I have, of course, over-simplified the problem. Many factors play into this dismal picture, and much has changed since the days of affordable college (G.I. Bill to the 1970s). Student bodies are much more diverse and more catered to. Sending jobs overseas has contributed greatly to the loss of unions and the decline of the working class, but the general picture that I have outlined is valid and needs to be reversed. Democracy depends on a much more equal society, and public education is one of the keys. Student loan forgiveness is a band aid; it is by no means the solution. The whole student loan debacle must be mitigated and adequate funding for public education restored. Private colleges are another matter, but if they have to compete for students with well-funded public colleges with affordable tuition, their fees may be forced downward. If, in these circumstances, students take out loans to attend private college, I agree with Richard Fein, it’s their problem. But let’s first make college affordable again.

Kathe Geist lives in Charlemont.


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