by Mary Ellen Flannery/Official White House photo above by Pete Souza
Keeping alive the promise of the American Dream means making college affordable, says President Obama, who last week laid out a comprehensive plan that provides hope to middle-class students and a framework for the country’s economic success.
“We’ve got an average of $24,000 worth of debt for every young person graduating now…it’s just brutal. And there are ways we can solve it,” said Obama, on Friday, January 27 at the University of Michigan.
Obama’s college affordability plan includes a $1 billion federal grant program that would shift federal support to states and colleges that lower costs for students and raise the rate of students earning degrees. The President also specifically called on Congress to keep interest rates low for 7.4 million students with federal student loans, and also to double the number of work-study jobs on college campuses over the next five years.
“We welcome the president’s efforts to put opportunity within reach of most Americans by strengthening and building the capacity of higher education and career and technical education so students can find good jobs and pursue their dreams,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “We look forward to working with President Obama and Congress to enact an agenda as bold as the challenges facing Americans.”
Obama’s views on college affordability and the value of a college degree are sharply different from the Republican candidates who’d like to fill his shoes in the White House. Last week, ignoring the fact that college graduates earn more money and fill much-needed jobs in education, technology, and elsewhere, Rick Santorum told CBS News that a college education was simple “indoctrination.” Earlier this month, he accused Obama of “elitist snobbery” for wanting every American to have the opportunity to go to college.
Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich told voters in Florida that today’s college students are coddled—and he spoke against college affordability programs. “Students take fewer classes per semester. They take more years to get through. Why? Because they have free money,” said Gingrich, in The Washington Post. “I would tell students: ‘Get through as quick as you can. Borrow as little as you can. Have a part-time job.’” (Meanwhile, The Post also reported that Gingrich’s father and Gingrich’s first wife paid for his college costs and living expenses.)
And we know millionaire Mitt Romney doesn’t get it either. His campaign website doesn’t even mention the issue of college affordability—but we got a hint to his position when a voter asked him in New Hampshire about soaring tuition costs. He said that for-profit colleges could be the answer (even though the facts show that graduates of for-profit institutions have higher debt, on average!) Romney also endorsed the federal budget that would have delivered the biggest reductions to Pell Grants in the history of the program.
But Obama has said clearly, last week in the State of the Union speech and again in remarks in Maryland on Thursday, that he believes “in an America in which everybody gets a fair shot and everybody does their fair share.” He believes that this is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and what’s at stake now is the very basic foundation of the American Dream.
There are jobs for Americans with college degrees, especially in engineering, science, and other high-tech fields, Obama noted. There also is the need for specific community-college programs, he said, that retrain workers who are eager to leave the unemployment lines and get back to work.
Of course, NEA and its members also know that it’s not possible to talk about decreasing costs for students without talking about increasing state and federal support for higher education. Last year, state funding for higher education declined 7 percent on average. In Arizona, it sank 25 percent. In New Hampshire, it was slashed by a whopping 41 percent.
Many college administrators have raised college tuition to make up for those shortfalls. In Michigan, for example, where Obama delivered his State of the Union speech last week, student tuition and fees account for about 75 percent of the cash coming into their institutions, while 25 percent comes from state sources. Twenty years ago, those numbers were flipped.
At the same time, even as faculty salaries and pay for support staff employees have remained stagnant, the amount of money going to a growing body of highly paid college administrators has skyrocketed. In California, where members of the California Faculty Association held a one-day protest strike this past fall, executive pay has increased 69 percent over the past decade.
What’s most important, said Mark Smith, NEA’s senior-policy analyst for higher education, is that students get a high-quality college education. “While making colleges affordable for all students, we also need to ensure that we have faculty to teach the courses, counselors to advise, and librarians to develop and enhance researching skills. Giving students affordable access to low quality education serves no one’s purpose.”
Click here to tell your members of Congress to reject cuts to the Pell Grant program and help keep college affordable for all students.