This is not the first time I’ve written about education during this campaign. It is one of the top issues being raised as I talk with people throughout the district. These conversations help to educate me on what people expect from the investments we make in higher education and how not all of us share the same views and opinions about its importance.
I’ve previously written about trade and vocational training, and the importance of apprenticeship programs in filling the vacant jobs that exist within our state. But, we taxpayers also have a vested interest in seeing our colleges and universities succeed.
There’s an increasing call from conservatives to reduce the flow of government money to institutions they say are failing to provide practical skills for the job market. Nearly every state has cut funding to public colleges and universities since the 2008 financial crisis; some reports indicate states spent $5.7 billion less on higher education last year than 2008 even though they were educating 800,000 more students. Arizona alone has cut spending by 54 percent in the past decade.
It doesn’t matter what your political ideology is to be worried about the cost of college, increasing student loan debt, access to quality education, or to appreciate that any cut in government support for education is making it increasingly difficult to afford for low and middle income students.
While most states have fully recovered from the economic problems of a few years ago, the partisan divide has grown. As the Pew Research Center discovered late last year, Democrats are twice as likely as Republicans to believe colleges and universities have a positive effect on the way things are going in our country. A recent Gallup poll found a similar split while other studies have found that an overwhelming number of white working-class men do not believe a college degree is worth the cost.
More than 44 million Americans are paying off student loans, including a growing number of people over 60. With the average student loan debt of $37,000, total student debt of $1.4 trillion is now larger than credit card debt.
While many conservative leaders suggest that taxpayers should only pay for degrees such as those in engineering, medicine or law that directly lead to jobs, Democrats are more likely to believe that the idea that government should be run more like a business is morally flawed.
President Trump has fanned the views of many conservatives, calling universities “corrosive to our democracy and our society.” Some conservative donors have rejected the President’s opinion and have increased their financial support to public institutions. Democrats have stepped up efforts to oppose corporate tax cuts and sales tax loopholes, choosing instead to get rid of those to fund public education systems at all levels.
As you may have gathered, I worry that the withdrawal of public funds to higher education is widening the class divide. Our public colleges and universities have been the surest route to a degree for those who are not wealthy.
President Trump and the Republican controlled House of Representatives have called for sharp cuts in federal work-study programs, programs that fund university research, a tax overhaul to cut corporate rates while imposing new taxes on endowments, and eliminating the deduction for student loan interest.
Jobs that require a high school diploma are disappearing – fast. I believe there is an indisputable return on investment for a college degree; graduates earn more, pay more taxes and are less likely to need government assistance.
So, let’s put away the fear and angst about whether our institutions of higher education are raising a new crop of liberals and agree that we can find educational solutions for everyone who wants to continue their education after high school. A lot is at stake. For some, this might mean a trade or vocational school while others will choose a college or university. The one thing we do know is that education is the single most important predictor of social mobility. It has been for over 100 years and it will continue to be an important economic driver. If we take away public funding or chop resources even further, we’re likely sentencing those people trying to lift themselves from poverty to a life with little or no hope for the future.