Hey Students – You’re Screwed!

How the state gives schools and scholars the shaft

Jul 17, 2013 at 12:32 am

EVERYONE AGREES ON THIS MUCH: The nation — especially Michigan — needs a much better educated work force if we have any hope of renewed prosperity.

Even more relevant, young people need as much higher education as possible if they are to have any chance of living the kind of middle class lives we baby boomers enjoyed.

What may be the biggest scandal of all is that our politicians are making it virtually impossible for them to do so, which, in the long run, may mean our state’s economy and its future are doomed.

Take Wayne State University, where I have taught for years. Retiring President Allan Gilmour, did, in my view, a superb job running the place. But on his way out the door, he announced a shocking tuition hike, which ended up being 8.9 percent. He gave lots of logical reasons why Wayne needed to do this. But the fact is that this means some students aren’t going to be able to keep going. Full-time WSU students are now paying, for tuition alone, an average of $11,000 a year.

Imagine being married (or unmarried) with kids, as many of my students are, and trying to come up with that.

Back in my day, just about anybody could come up with the money they needed to go to a good state school. For one thing, tuition was vastly cheaper, even allowing for inflation.

For another, you could get a good-paying summer job in a factory or a warehouse, and if you lived at home — and didn’t blow it all on pot — you could almost make enough to cover your tuition, room and board for the next few years.

In fact, while I have multiple degrees, and can more or less read and speak several languages, I might — in a trance — still be able to tell you the part number for a 1968 Ford Galaxie master cylinder.

Plus, scholarship money was plentiful and you could always get low-cost student loans. There was a different spirit in this land then. True, some of it was due to our need to keep up with the Soviets during the Cold War. But I never studied anything with the remotest military application, and money was there for me. There was something more to our willingness to help students.

I have never gotten out of my head what John F. Kennedy used to say, over and over (in words borrowed from Franklin D. Roosevelt), when he was running for President:

“Governments can err, presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales. Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”

Today, “frozen in its own indifference” might be too nice a way of stating how government feels about those trying to get an education. A few years ago, when Jennifer Granholm was still playing at being governor, our lawmakers broke the state’s promise by canceling the Michigan Promise scholarship grant.

Next, that warm moderate Rick Snyder cut higher education spending by about 15 percent — in order to give state businesses a whopping tax cut. Some money was restored later, but higher ed spending is still behind where it was in 2010.

Actually, spending on higher education levels in our state had already been falling for years. That’s one of the reasons for a series of tuition hikes year after year, at school after school.

And if that weren’t enough, the rate on so-called Stafford loans, the loans millions of students take out to try to finish their education, is doubling, from 3.4 to 6.8 percent.

Democrats made an attempt to extend the lower rate for a year, to give Congress time to try to do something to make college more affordable. But the Republicans, and even a few Democrats, refused.

They already have their degrees, after all.

Things weren’t good to begin with. A smaller percentage of young adults in Michigan are college-educated than in any surrounding state. Nine years ago, then-Lt. Gov. John Cherry led a blue-ribbon commission on the higher education future.

Those involved concluded that, for our state to stay economically competitive, Michigan had to double the number of students graduating from college in the next decade.

Ho-ho. We won’t even be close to that, thanks to what’s been happening here since.

To be fair, the legislature has one thing to its credit: It did increase funding for pre-kindergarten education. But when it comes to students who want professional careers — forget it.

Want to know how bad it is? Education Sector, an independent policy think tank, recently discovered that students at 19 Michigan colleges are more likely to default on their student loans than new students are to graduate.

Those schools, by the way, include Wayne County and Henry Ford community colleges, and the faux-schools Baker College (some campuses) and the University of Phoenix.

With student loan interest skyrocketing, does anyone want to bet against the default rate going through the roof?

But to be fair, there is an area where Michigan is a higher education leader. We are now the unchallenged leader in filing lawsuits over unpaid student loans. Those are loans, by the way, that can’t be wiped out even if you file for bankruptcy.

What bothers me most is that we see refusing to help good students through college as a permissible, even a normal state of affairs. Well, it shouldn’t be. Without higher education, hundreds of thousands of intelligent people will be doomed to lives of desperation, quiet or otherwise.

And that could be an eventual problem for those who are fairly well off. Back in the late 1970s, none of the smart set saw the Islamic revolution in Iran coming, nor the rise of either Muslim or Christian religious fundamentalism.

That was all supposed to be in the past. We were in a new age of secular modernization, as they told me in college.

Well, today everybody thinks that socialism, particularly Marxist socialism, is an extinct ideology. Except that for 30 years, the plutocrats have been behaving as if they were trying to re-create the conditions described in Das Kapital.

You know; the ones that led to the expropriators being expropriated.  As usual, comrades, it ain’t over till it’s over.

And it’s almost never completely over.

Bankruptcy and Detroit

FREE PRESS COLUMNIST Tom Walsh may have been the first to call for Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr to get it over with and file for bankruptcy. When you look at the numbers, it was hard from the start to see how bankruptcy could be avoided. That doesn’t mean it is a waste of time for Orr to try to make deals with the city’s creditors; the more he gets done ahead of Chapter 9, the faster the process can go. But what happens after we emerge from bankruptcy? One man gave me an ingenious idea:

“Detroit should declare its independence and declare war on the United States. (The Pentagon) would drop a few bombs, which would mainly knock down uninhabited buildings.

“Then we surrender, America occupies Detroit, and pours in billions to build up the infrastructure, like in Iraq.”

Admittedly, there’s a hole or two in his theory. However — can you imagine what we could do if Washington spent a small fraction of the funds used to destroy Iraq on restoring Detroit?

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].