Here’s an interesting episode: The subject of student-loan debt came up Sept. 13 on comedian Bill Maher’s “Real Time,” presumably in connection with the presence on the panel of Matt Taibbi, author of a recent Rolling Stone article with the revealing title “Ripping Off Young America: The College-Loan Scandal.”
The Real Time panel hit colleges and universities pretty hard. Taibbi said college tuition is a “scam” and “ridiculously high.” He said colleges and universities are “continuously jacking up the rates.” Why? “Because they can.”
Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, had his say as well, referring to an explosion of frivolous administrative costs at colleges, for example, the hiring of “17 vice presidents of fill-in-the-blank,” while the courses are taught mostly by teaching assistants rather than full-time professors.
Finally, Zanny Minton-Beddoes, economics editor for The Economist, took a turn, relying on a classic free-market talking point: “There’s no incentive,” no need for universities to compete on price.
Oddly, during this six-minute drive-by directed at institutions of higher education, nobody pushed back, not even Maher, whose politics ordinarily lie to the left.
Of course, higher education has its problems, as reflected in these often-cited statistics: Tuition rates have increased at around three times the rate of inflation, and students graduate with an average student-loan debt of $27,000. Total student-loan debt hit a trillion dollars recently, exceeding the total debt we owe on our credit cards.
Tuition probably is too high. But that assertion is meaningless apart from the context of the deliberate policy changes and legislation that have affected college and university revenue in the past couple of decades and particularly since the recession began.
Consider this report from the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, issued March 19 and cited in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The report’s essential theme is summed up in its introduction: “In the past five years, state cuts to higher education funding have been severe and almost universal.” In 2013, states are spending 28 percent less per student on higher education than they did in 2008. Eleven states have cut their spending by more than a third, and two states – Arizona and New Hampshire – have cut funding in half.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report describes the slashed funding in detail. It describes also the inadequacy of federal funding to take up the slack. Revenue sources for institutions of higher education are limited. As other sources fall significantly, no one should be surprised if tuition goes up significantly, as well.
In fact, this trend in higher education is consistent with the growing ideological reluctance, especially in Republican-controlled state legislatures, to raise revenue for public goods and with an increasing inclination to push costs onto the private user. In this context, why wouldn’t tuition have to go up?
The “Real Time” panelists and Taibbi’s Rolling Stone article depend heavily on anecdote and assertion, with little evidence or data, to suggest that higher education had already been failing to make good use of the revenue that’s been taken away from it. In fact, Taibbi asserts, without evidence, that universities use “sleazy” loan-shark collection methods to keep themselves in “fancy new waterfalls, swimming pools, and” – the biggest frill of all – “tenure-track jobs.”
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report, on the other hand, argues that tuition increases and federal support haven’t come close to compensating for lost state revenue. As a result, colleges and universities have cut spending drastically, and the report provides evidence to support the assertion.
The fact that colleges and universities can so quickly and casually become the villain of the college-loan crisis probably reflects the persistent suspicion that they are enclaves of cushy academic jobs, trivial research and dreamy, unmotivated adolescents.
Perhaps. But their essential imperative is to operate in the light of information, evidence and context. Certainly, their critics should do the same.
John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Email email@example.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.