In his speech last week at the Republican National Convention, the party’s nominee Mitt Romney offered nothing to college students reeling from the soaring cost of higher education.
According to the College Board, the cost of four-year colleges has increased by an average of $8,244 over the past ten years — a 72 percent rise above inflation. Outstanding student loan debt has hit $914 billion, or about 45,000 times the number of students currently enrolled in American universities.
We at UT are painfully aware of the skyrocketing costs. “UT gave me a $20,000 per-year scholarship, but I found out pretty quickly that doesn’t cover everything,” theatre and education senior Jorge Galan said. “Even with that scholarship I’ll be graduating with over $60,000 in debt. That’ll take at least 20 years for me to pay off.” But Galan, a Texas resident, ranks among the lucky ones. In 2010, the cost of attendance for out-of-state students at UT reached $45,960, or 93 percent of the U.S. median household income.
And this doesn’t just affect us. The price of a college education has an enormously outsized impact on the economy. The economic explosion of the 1950s saw one of the sharpest rises in GDP per capita in our country’s history — and it had a lot to do with Americans getting affordable college degrees through the GI Bill. They flooded the economy with both skilled workers and consumers ready and eager to spend their paychecks. Notably, those paychecks weren’t being exhausted paying off student loans.
If Romney seeks to revitalize the economy, he should alleviate the crushing debt burying college students. When we graduate, we’re entering the economy owing thousands of dollars and with few job prospects. It doesn’t take a PhD in economics to deduce that there isn’t going to be very much revitalizing spending coming from an enormous swath of the population that’s eating ramen noodles six out of seven nights.
It seems like a no-brainer, but on this issue Romney has failed to deliver. When asked what he would do about college costs in March, Romney told students to “shop around.” This is sound, albeit somewhat obvious, financial advice. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to realize that we’re shopping in a district where every store is far out of most Americans’ price range.
But hey, perhaps Romney can be forgiven for not fully understanding the problem. After all, when he went to Brigham Young University in 1969, tuition for Mormon students was $215 a semester. Just one semester’s worth of non-resident tuition at UT in 2012 would have allowed young Mitt to attend BYU for about eighty years.
In May, Romney released a paper titled “A Chance for Every Child,” which blames federal spending for the exorbitant cost of college, claiming that “a flood of federal dollars is driving up costs and burdening too many young Americans with too much debt and too few opportunities.” The paper crows that “a Romney Administration will tackle this challenge by making clear that the federal government will no longer write a blank check to universities to reward their tuition increases.” Instead, Romney plans to put the nation’s trust in the private sector to “provide information, financing and education itself.”
Contrary to Romney’s assertions, tuition hikes at public universities have happened largely as a result of huge funding cuts by state governments. In 1985, state appropriations for UT Austin accounted for 47 percent of the university’s budget. Tuition and fees accounted for no more than five percent. Now, tuition and fees provide a quarter of UT’s budget while state funding has dwindled to a mere 13 percent. Amazingly, that actually puts UT ahead of many other state colleges. Last year, the state of Michigan contributed a paltry 4.5 percent of its flagship university’s budget.
Furthermore, Romney’s trust in the private sector is horribly misplaced. We saw how much private lenders care about their borrowers’ best interests in 2008 when Citigroup, Lehman Brothers and their fellows drove the economy into the ditch by issuing countless toxic mortgage loans and gambling on securities with our money. We see it every time we pass a payday lending office in a poor part of town. Those guys aren’t the answer. Neither are the for-profit, University of Phoenix-style institutions that happen to be contributing enormous sums of money to Romney’s campaign.
All this provides opportunity for President Obama to draw contrast between himself and his opponent, but his own response has been sadly underwhelming. So far, Obama has kept interest rates for subsidized Stafford loans from doubling to 6.8 percent, but even Romney was on board with that. In his second term, he plans to make permanent his American Opportunity tax credit, which grants college students up to $2,500 a year but would take $13 billion next year alone to renew. He also promises to expand the maximum Pell grant from $5,550 to $5,635, but that was already scheduled under current laws.
These are admirable efforts, to be sure, but they bring to mind trying to halt a wildfire with a couple dozen water balloons. In 1980, according to Education Week, the maximum Pell grant covered 77 percent of the average cost of attendance at a 4-year public institution. Today, it covers 36 percent. Even if Obama passes the increase he promises, that 36 percent won’t go up by even a single percentage point. Something far more substantial is necessary.
When President Obama takes his turn in the national spotlight at the conventiontonight, I’d like for him to know the eyes of America’s college students will be upon him.
Stroud is an international relations and global studies major from San Antonio.