Not Enough Support for Higher Education 

Repeated cutbacks to high education are only screwing us over.

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SEVERAL MONTHS AGO, one of my former students came to see me because she was very upset; not with me — she performed brilliantly in my classes and got top grades.

But thanks to the current state of media, she couldn’t find a job. She understood that was the nature of the beast and didn’t blame my employer, Wayne State University, or me. (I am the chair of the journalism program.) She was bitter, however, because she owed more than $45,000 in student loans.
“Even when I get a job, how am I going to pay that back?” she said. “Maybe I should have just stayed a bartender.”

Sarah is not alone. It’s not unusual for students to come out of college owing $40,000, even $60,000 for a bachelor’s degree. She is actually in better shape than many; she lived at home and had a decent job at Hockeytown Café.

This, in fact, is likely to get worse, rather than better. Earlier this year, Wayne State University slapped students with an 8.9 percent tuition increase, plus some steep hikes in ancillary fees.
My mentioning this may not make my bosses on the Board of Governors happy. But in fact, while I might question some of their priorities, it isn’t really their fault.

They are only doing what the school needs to do in order to survive, since state colleges — and by default, the next generation — are being shortchanged by Congress, our state legislature and selfish, greedy adults — adults of my generation, that is.

Here’s the problem. Back when I was an undergraduate, starting in 1969, you could get a good summer job — in a factory or a warehouse, say — and earn almost enough to pay for a year at a good state school, including room and board.

Tuition was far cheaper, even allowing for inflation. This was possible because state and federal support accounted for roughly 70 percent of universities’ operating expenses. Thanks to government support for higher ed, few of my peers came out owing staggering amounts in student loans.
Granted, students who went to fancy law or medical schools often did have to take out loans to graduate — but those degrees were regarded as a license to print money.

However, we’ve been methodically cutting back on state support for higher education. These days, the ratio is exactly reversed; universities need to recover close to 70 percent of their operating funds from tuition and fees.

That’s why Sarah, and thousands and thousands more, end up owing so much. Our non-support of the next generation is a moral scandal in itself, in my opinion.
People like me had our chance. Thanks to government support for higher education, and my willingness to work at it, I have a nice life today — with things like a house in a decent neighborhood, appliances and, well, food.

I am a very happy man. I want to go on like this as long as I can, but the fact is that my fellow baby boomers — and Gen Xers — should regard Sarah and her classmates as more important than us. We’ve had our chance, damn it. They deserve theirs.
Yet there’s an even bigger scandal here that I haven’t mentioned yet. You might think that, with millions of kids forced to take out student loans and some unable to pay them back on time, Washington was losing money on the deal. You’d also be dead wrong. The U.S. Department of Education is rolling in dough from the profit it makes on student loans! How much? More than the entire federal education budget!

According to the Huffington Post, in the year ending Sept. 30, the U.S. Department of Education made $42.5 billion in profit from its loans to students like my Sarah. Nor was that a one-time quirk. That federal department made $47.9 billion in 2011.

This year, the figure might have been $50 billion, if Congress and the president hadn’t decided to (temporarily) reduce student loan rates last summer.

That strikes me as obscene. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a fast-rising star in Congress, said, “… with college costs exploding and students being crushed by more than a trillion dollars in debt, I think we should invest in our students, not make obscene profits off them.”
Yet few in Congress seem eager to grant students relief. They did pass a law tying student interest rates to the federal treasury rate. That may help students a little now, but when times get better, student loan payments will soar.

This is manifestly obscene. Sadly, we live in a state where the lawmakers think it appropriate to spend far more on prisons than higher education and have a mostly Republican congressional delegation that voted this fall to default on the national debt.

Sarah, by the way, finally did get a job in media, as a promotions manager for a country music station. She is excited, but would be happier if she didn’t owe a college loan debt considerably more than her annual salary.

Back in my time, the government made it as easy as it could for kids to go to college, because lawmakers believed we were locked in a competitive struggle with the Soviet Union.
Now, when we desperately need highly educated adults more than ever, we put every roadblock in their way. Does this make any sense as a national policy?

Hungry Like the Wolf

FORTY YEARS AGO, the wolf was almost extinct in the Upper Peninsula. Gradually, with careful nurturing, the population has been brought back. And ever since it was clear the wolves would make it, there have been bloodthirsty hunters just salivating to blow one away.
This year, they got their chance. The state legislature authorized the killing of 43 wolves, despite pleas from people like wildlife biologist John Vucetich, a professor at Michigan Technological University, who said, “There is no scientific evidence that wolves need to be hunted.”

But state Sen. Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba) told the legislature lurid tales of how wolves had been menacing a daycare center and were destroying poor farmers’ livestock.

The lawmakers promptly voted to authorize a hunt and — when it was clear there was huge opposition — subsequently voted to prevent placing a referendum on the ballot to outlaw hunting wolves. This wasn’t surprising, since most Republicans are opposed to real democracy to begin with.

What was surprising is that Casperson eventually had to admit to his fellow lawmakers that everything he had said was a lie: No children had been menaced by wolves; no person has ever been attacked by a wolf in Michigan history.

It also turns out that the vast majority of reported wolf attacks on livestock involve one negligent farmer named John Koski. He refuses to install a fence and leaves dead cattle to rot in his fields, providing a magnet for hungry wolves.

Incredibly, the state paid him $33,000 for his dead animals! Incidentally, it always has been legal to kill a wolf menacing people or livestock. But even after the facts were known, Gov. Rick Snyder happily signed the wolf hunt into law, proclaiming this a case of “sound scientific and biological principles” — which is, of course, a total lie.

To be fair, some might say I am not a real man. When I saw the picture of the first triumphant hunter-killer, with what looked like a big dead German shepherd in the back of his pickup truck, I didn’t get turned on.

Instead, I wanted to give him a steak knife and put him in a pen with another large wolf — preferably an angry one.

Now that would be a real sporting contest, one whose outcome might well improve the species — ours, that is. 

More by Jack Lessenberry

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