Crushing college costs make the personal political

Bob Donaldson | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via TNS

Bob Donaldson | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via TNS

All around the country, students are packing up and going off to college. Proud parents are remembering moments like when their kids came home from the hospital, ventured off to kindergarten and attended their first school dance.

And while the food bill will go down a lot without that teenager and his or her crew around, finances are likely to be a big issue.

Maine college students graduate with some of the highest loan debt in the country, nearly $30,000 per person. Graduates are thus burdened with high-cost loans that make it harder for them to start their financial futures. Student debt affects everyone by creating a drag on the economy, since the money going to pay loans could be spent for a mortgage, in the community or otherwise invested.

Our convoluted financial aid process also dissuades some from applying to college. Many high-achieving, low-income students don’t know they could get quite a lot of aid, whether in merit awards from public or private universities or need-based funding from schools with huge endowments.

While not everyone should go to college, finances should not thwart students from attending, not in the United States, the wealthiest country on the planet.

It not only doesn’t have to be this way, but it wasn’t before.

As political scientist Suzanne Mettler notes, “College tuition costs actually declined relative to family income in the 1940s and 1950s, and held steady until about 1980.” Moreover, policy mattered. “The federal government stimulated attendance through its student aid policies,” starting with the G.I. Bill, which built the post-war American middle class.

In that same time, wealth was more evenly distributed than today, and more families could pay their bills and put away money for college. But as middle-class incomes stalled, with increasing wealth going to the very top, college got more expensive and federal financial aid fell.

Public universities now rely more on tuition than state appropriations, squeezing students and parents and sometimes leading to cuts that undermine the depth and breadth of education and reduce the classes students need to graduate.

Pell grants, which go to low-income students, are now worth less in inflation-adjusted terms than they were when the program started. Nearly 30,000 Maine students receive these awards.

As a professor, I’ve seen students working full-time, struggling to pay their bills, stay in school and get good grades.

Yet the House Republican budget, which Rep. Bruce Poliquin supported, cut funding for Pell grants. Meanwhile, Poliquin supported expanding 529 savings accounts, which go to families with 25 times the median assets of families who don’t have them.

Even applying for federal financial aid is skewed. Although wealthy and upper-middle class families get subsidies by filling out their income tax forms, working-class families can’t get Pell grants unless they work through the overly complicated FAFSA application. Research suggests this discourages low-income students from applying while knowing in middle school that college costs will be covered motivates them to achieve.

All Americans believe that government should promote opportunity. And young people are a key voting bloc that helped elect Barack Obama twice.

Back in 2013, in assessing what went wrong in 2012, the Republican Party pledged to try to appeal to younger voters and immigrants.

The second part of the pledge has been an utter failure. Donald Trump, the leading GOP presidential candidate rails against immigrants, using the slur, “anchor baby.” Jeb Bush used the same term and then corrected himself in a way that didn’t help, by explaining he actually was thinking of Asian immigrants’ babies.

Republican candidates have said almost nothing about how they would deal with helping people with higher education, although Bush criticized Hillary Clinton’s plan, saying, “We don’t need any more top-down Washington solutions,” implying that the federal government should do little or nothing for college students.

Clinton’s plan would make tuition at community colleges and four-year public universities free while requiring students to work 10 hours a week and parents to pitch in. People who have already borrowed could refinance to lower interest rates with payments tied to income.

College costs and student debt matter to so many people who care about opportunity. But for students, graduates and their parents, when they vote in 2016, the personal will be political.

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Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.