An Analysis of Higher Education in the World of Politics

22 Oct

The origin of higher education dates back all the way to 1088 in Bologna, Italy with the act of those who were well learned in grammar and logic beginning to study law.  Shortly after in 1096, the first lectures were held at Oxford University in England.  The idea of higher education in Europe and Asia eventually spread to the United States with the creation of Harvard University in 1636. By 1776, eight other universities had been created in America.  During this age, access to higher education was rather limited with only the elite attending.  The goal of these early educational institutions was to create either scholars or clergymen.  However, Benjamin Franklin who founded what is now the University of Pennsylvania wondered whether or not the importance of higher education is to increase general knowledge or to provide skills used towards earning a living in a specific field. This is a debate that still exists in higher education today.  Following the founding of the first eight universities in America, the 20th century saw the opening of public research universities in America and all across the world.  The opening of these public institutions provided not only the elite but also the “common man” with access to higher education.  The 20th century also saw the beginning of government involvement in higher education.  During the Great Depression, the National Youth Administration spent $93 million to help 620,000 students attend college.  Government involvement increased also during the years of the Cold War with America spending almost $1 billion each year on  scientific research done by colleges and universities across the country. Currently, the US government devotes 3% of the federal budget to education.  A portion of this 3% is devoted specifically to higher education.  This money devoted to higher education is divided among research, general funding, financial aid, and student loans. In today’s political world, there are several questions involving higher education; Why is it important? How involved should the federal government be in higher education? and the hot topic of this year’s presidential election, How can higher education be made affordable for all?

One of the arguments surrounding higher education in politics is why it is important or necessary for United States citizens to have some kind of degree or certification from a college, university, or trade school following their high school education.  Dr. John Ebersole, President of Excelsior College, sums up this argument well in his blog post about whether or not higher education should even be considered a political issue.  Dr. Ebersole sees the issue of higher education not as a political issue by itself but as a concept related to the growth of the American economy.  While I am analyzing all arguments surrounding higher education, I support Dr. Ebersole’s position.  Dr. Ebersole not only supports higher education because he is the President of a college but also because he believes it is beneficial to the economy for more Americans to earn a college degree.  “Those nations with a highly educated workforce are more competitive in a global economy,” writes Dr. Ebersole.  Dr. Ebersole supports this statement by presenting the fact that higher education leads to greater employment opportunities.  He reports that the current unemployment rate for someone with a bachelor’s degree is only 4% compared to the national rate of 8.1%. This statistic clearly shows that a college degree is undeniably beneficial to both the individual citizen and the economy as that citizen’s skills will contribute to economic development.  In 2011 the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization that conducts research and acts as a think tank for American democracy, conducted the Hamilton Project to calculate the value of a college education.  The goal of the project was to calculate what the best investment of $102,000, the cost of obtaining a 4-year college degree, would be.  Researchers analyzed if it would be more beneficial for an 18 year-old to invest $102,000 in obtaining a college degree or to invest it in stocks and bonds  and take his or her chances in the limited job market of someone with only a high school degree.  The results of the project found that the investment in a college degree yielded a 15.2% return per year which is more than double the average return of the stock market over the past 60 years, only a 6.8% return.  According to this project, it is clear that the value of a college degree is worth the cost.  Another report from the Brookings Institution done in August of 2012 analyzed the gap between job openings in urban areas and levels of education of residents in those areas. Overall, the report discovered that those with higher education provided numerous benefits to the economy.  These benefits included a specialized workforce, job creation, and higher spending power that boosts demand for local services. Aside from the evidence presented by Dr. Ebersole and the Brookings Institution, other statistical info available from numerous sources shows that higher education is necessary and should be of political concern through unbiased FACTS. For example, the Minnesota Office of Higher Education presented that the average income for someone with a high school degree in 2011 was $23,504 per year as compared to someone with a Bachelor’s degree earning $54,756 per year. The Huffington Post presented the finding from a study that discovered college graduates earn 84% more over a lifetime than those with only a high school degree. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the comparisons in unemployment rates and weekly earnings of those with only a high school degree and those with the different levels of college degrees in this table titled “Education Pays. “ The undisputed answer to the question of the importance of higher education in politics is YES, it is necessary. Now the question is, how should the government be involved and how can higher education be made affordable to all?

Student loan debt began to exceed credit card debt in the United States for the first time in June of 2010. The total debt was $830 billion with $665 billion of that being federal education loans and $168 being private student loans. In 2011, a college graduate owed an average of $26,600 in student loans. Financial aid and student loans provided either federally or privately are the means by which families and students in the United States have begun to increasingly rely on to pay for college.  The main issue of higher education in politics today is how the federal government should make education more accessible through the use of student loans and federal aid while also decreasing the amount of student loan debt in the nation today. Currently, student loan debt in the United States exceeds $1 trillion and is continuing to increase. One of the ways in which the federal government has provided access to higher education is through the Pell Grant program. The Pell Grant program originated in 1972 as an amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965. The Federal Pell Grant Program provides loans to students that do not have to be repaid.  These loans are given to students, mainly undergraduate but some graduate students as well, who have a low-income. These grants are a part of the government’s effort of encouraging interest in and access to higher education.  About 5,400 colleges and universities participate in the Pell Grant Program and the maximum grant awarded for the 2011-2012 year is $5,550. Student loan programs like the Pell Grant program are at the heart of the issue of student debt reduction.  The current situation of student loan programs is being largely impacted by the Budget Control Act of 2011 which raised the debt ceiling for the federal government.  This act allowed congressmen to approve a $17 billion increase in funds for the Pell Grant program in 2012 and 2013.  The con to this increase though is that in order to provide these funds the government must cut spending in other areas and limit eligibility for the Pell Grant.  The Budget Control Act also led to other student loan programs being cut such as those offering interest reductions to students who pay loans on time.  Taxpayer funding, a way in which public universities are funded, is also being impacted by the economic downturn as this type of funding is beginning to decrease.  With less tax payer dollars, colleges and universities will increase tuition which will in turn increase students’ dependence on the government and student loan debt.  With the process of paying for higher education becoming a vicious cycle of debt and despair, those currently in office and running for office in Washington and across the country have been called to turn their attention to the issue.  Steve Goodman, an education consultant and college-admissions strategist, presents the argument that government should increase their regulation of colleges and universities in order to prevent “runaway tuition.” Goodman believes that while it is necessary for colleges to increase costs at times because of requests for better facilities, research and development, and new laboratories, the government needs to step in and force institutions to contain their costs. Goodman also points out that colleges are exempt from paying taxes and that “self-policing” by these institutions has not worked as shown by the increases in tuition.  For example, Stanford University’s tuition grew from $6,285 in 1980 to $40,050 currently. Goodman believes the solution to this problem is for the government to require institutions whose tuition is above the Consumer Price Index to take money from their endowment funds to create grants for students.  Another part of his solution is to create a committee to enforce these regulations that would be composed of university representatives, economists, Fortune 500 employers, and consumer advocates.  The committee would oversee that those universities who do not follow the regulations provided by the government would lose their eligibility to be exempt for taxes.  This consequence would act as an incentive to force institutions to follow the guidelines as they would most likely rather lower tuition costs than pay taxes.  However, Goodman also presents the reasoning behind why increased government regulation of colleges and universities is not wanted as their freedom to research and expand should not be limited.  Goodman presents a rather radical point of view on government involvement.  The position of conservatives when it comes to higher education and the role of the federal government is that most decision-making concerning costs and how money is spent should be left up to local and state governments based on their policies that may not be nationwide. Gail Sunderman, a senior research associate in K-12 education for the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, details the changing role of the federal government in education and the different viewpoints in her writing of The Federal Role in Education: From the Reagan to the Obama Administration. (This link will connect you to the webpage containing the PDF file of Sunderman’s writing).  While countless Americans have varying opinions on the issue of higher education, how it should be made more affordable, and how the government should be involved, the two positions most significant to American society are those of President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

President Barack Obama, a democrat, has shown strong support for higher education throughout his time in office and current campaigning through his emphasis on the importance of obtaining a college degree. After the United States was ranked 16th in the world in the number of citizens with college degrees, President Obama encouraged every American to attend at least one year of education beyond high school in order to increase the United States ranking in number of college graduates by the year 2020. President Obama believes it is the job of the federal government, state governments, and post-secondary education institutions themselves to work together in cutting tuition costs and making college more accessible.  The President has already made efforts towards increasing accessibility by doubling government investment in Pell Grants.  He has also vowed to support students struggling to repay their debt with the enactment of his student loan reform if he is re-elected.  His policy would become active in 2014 and would require that borrowers will pay no more than 10 percent of their disposable income when paying back their loans. To further promote higher education, Obama’s platform involves expanding education tax credits, reforming student aid, and strengthening community colleges to produce a greater amount of trained workers for the workforce.

Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, a member Republican party and opponent of President Obama in this year’s Presidential election, also wants to encourage access to higher education but using different methods.  Contrary to Obama, Romney believes that increased federal spending on education has contributed to increasing costs of education. The reasoning behind this is that much of the money given to educational institutions through Pell Grants and loans is borrowed by the federal government and only increasing debt for colleges, universities, and students.  Romney supports the Radical Republican budget which would cut Pell Grants for one million students, greatly decreasing the amount of federal dollars spent on higher education. Romney’s approach to higher education is conservative in that he supports the replacement of federal regulation in colleges and universities with innovation and competition.  If elected, Romney plans to strengthen the financial aid system and encourage private sector participation. Higher education is included in part three of Romney’s 5-point plan.  The goal of Romney’s 5-point plan is to turn around the economy and create a better job market in America.  Part three of his plan concerns the process of preparing people for the workforce by teaching them the skills they need through greater access to higher education. The overall goal of the Romney administration is to promote access to higher education while decreasing the amount of federal dollars put towards higher education in order to lower tuition costs.

The questions concerning education in the political world (Why is higher education important?, How should the federal government be involved? How can accessibility to higher education be improved?) will continue to be answered in varying ways as long as higher education institutions are functioning.  When analyzed from different angles, the conclusion can be made that higher education is becoming a necessity in American society but the way in which a degree may be obtained is a method that will continue to change as political leaders and policies change.  The concern of politicians currently is how to expand post-secondary education to create a more knowledgeable workforce and keep the cost of a college degree at an affordable price.  This dilemma is not something that can be solved in the short-term but will take negotiating between government officials and representatives of higher education institutions over a number of years.

To learn more about President Obama’s background and his empathy for college students in debt check out this video .

For more on Governor Romney’s support of competition among higher education institutions and less federal funding for colleges, watch this.

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