I still remember my first tuition bill at the University of Minnesota. It was $276 per quarter, which put my annual bill for three quarters worth of classes at a whopping $828.
It was 1979 and things cost less back then, but nothing has risen in price in Minnesota like college tuition over the past 33 years. My own son is in college now— in fact, as I write this he’s on his way to UMD to register for his fall classes. His college tuition for the year will be more than $12,000. That’s a 15-fold increase since my college days. Good luck finding anything, other than tuition, that costs 15 times more than it did in 1979.
Back in those days, I worked summers on a farm, for about $2.50 an hour. At that rate, I could earn enough to pay for my year’s tuition in about eight weeks.
These days, most college students consider themselves lucky to find any summer work at all. If they do, it’s probably at close to minimum wage, which certainly hasn’t increased by 25 times since 1979. More likely, they’ll be offered an unpaid “internship,” an all-too common arrangement that allows companies to exploit desperate college kids in hopes of a job down the road.
Long story short, almost no college student can hope to earn even a quarter’s worth of tuition by working summers these days.
For most, the alternative is debt, and usually lots of it. The average 2011 college grad left school with a diploma and $23,000 in IOUs. For those obtaining more advanced degrees, many students graduate with much more debt than that. It’s no wonder that so many young people return home to live with mom and dad.
The story of college tuition and its impact on middle class families, and particularly on young people, is one that has played out in similar ways across the public policy stage in recent years.
In my college day, taxes covered most of the costs of operating public colleges and universities, a policy that kept tuitions low and higher education open to pretty much anyone with a desire to attend. These days, we’ve cut taxes here in Minnesota, particularly for the wealthiest, and enforced a rigid “no-new-taxes” ideology that has resulted in budget shortfalls and, by extension, to dramatic cuts in higher education funding and skyrocketing tuition. While demand for higher education continues despite those high costs (in part because the future for those without a degree is so bleak), it has forced students to go deeply into debt to pay for it all. In 1979, we taxed those with money to provide opportunity in society. Today, as a society, we instead borrow from those with money to pay for the services we desire. And someone, be they college students, mom and dad, or society in general, must, at some point, pay it all back with interest.
We need to understand the connections here, and the implications of our policy decisions. For college students, it means beginning their post-education lives in debt, in some cases heavily. This has negative effects on our economy as in-debt students, with limited job prospects, put off marriage, home-buying, and all the economic spin-offs such activity entails.
In the broader picture, it means trillion dollar federal deficits on an annual basis, on top of the exploding debt that so many families are experiencing as a result of spiraling costs for things like health care, energy, and insurance.
Those who oppose taxing those with money have invented elaborate and often unsupportable explanations (they’re job creators!) to defend their position. They say government has grown too big, which is a tough position to actually defend when you consider that the number of people employed in local, state, and federal workforces around the country has declined over the past 20 years, even as the population and our economy have grown substantially. Government may not be a model of efficiency, but it does more with a lot fewer workers than it used to.
Government spending at all levels has certainly risen, but it’s the spiraling cost of health care, our fixation on expanding our prison population, and our foreign wars that have fueled that expansion more than anything else. But just suggest cuts in any of these areas and it’s the same no-tax crowd that will be the first to scream “death panels!”
These trends coincide with economic trends, primarily the expansion of a free trade regime globally, that has brought enormous rewards to those with capital, and a race-to-the-bottom in terms of pay and benefits for millions of American workers. It’s no surprise, then, that 93 percent of all income growth in the U.S. since the start of the Great Recession has gone to the top 1 percent. Average Americans are going backwards and the generation now starting out faces the grim prospect of, for the first time in American history, being less well-off than the generation before.
If this is the direction in which Americans want to continue, they should continue to support the no-tax politicians and we’ll see much more of the same. An America that is unwilling to pay for the things it needs will be an America increasingly in debt, at all levels. Even a college freshman should understand the perils in that.