Education Cutbacks, Student Debt: The Centerof the Real Generation War

Education Cutbacks, Student Debt: The Center of the Real Generation War

 February 17, 2014

Like the quintessential bad parent, aging America incessantly declares how much it cares about “the children” but, somehow, keeps tossing the young under the bus again and again to fortify its own ego, bad habits, and spending on itself.

The systematic defunding of America’s public school and higher education over the last 40 years is among the biggest of the many betrayals older America—whose own schools were much more generously funded by their generally poorer parents and grandparents in the 1950s and 1960s—has inflicted on younger generations. In a series of massive tax cuts self-awarded by popular vote and by lawmakers beginning with California’s Proposition 13 in 1978, older generations enriched themselves immensely again and again, in state after state, at the expense of public school and university funding.

The result is glaring. From 1969-70 to 2011-12, university tuition and fees in real, inflation adjusted dollars leaped 257% for 4-year and by 147% for 2-year public higher education institutions12 (see Table 381, Digest of Education Statistics, 2012). In real 2011-12 dollars, the average annual tuition and required fees averaged:
for a 4-year public college/university, $2,156 in 1969-70; rising to $7,701 in 2011-12
for 2-year public colleges, $1,072 in 1969-70, rising to $2,647 in 2011-12.

Today, 60% of students must borrow to pay for higher education, accumulating some $864 billion in debt to attend public colleges and universities, an average student loan balance approaching $24,000. Prior to the 1980s, student debt for public higher education was practically non-existent; today, a majority of graduates may be saddled with debt for decades.

But tax cuts are not the only issue in skyrocketing higher education costs. Colleges and universities have ballooned their administrative costs much faster than for instruction, led by salaries to upper-echelon administrators, with college chief executives now earning more than a quarter-million dollars per year at the low end to $500,000 in California and over $1 million in Ohio.

Lawmakers and major interests have obscured their own failure to control education costs and student debt behind disgracefully false campaigns to misrepresent students as ever-more afflicted with mental illness and frivolous-debt crises and in need of more counseling and bans on their use of credit cards. In fact, a great deal of student stress (not mental illness, which has declined on campuses over the last 25 years) may well be related to the greater numbers who now must borrow and work full time to finance their educations.

Although minor reforms have been initiated in the Obama administration to reduce interest charges, which account for a small but significant fraction of college costs and its increases, it remains all but impossible to instigate a discussion on the relentless, 30-year war being waged by older and wealthier generations against younger ones. While “generation war” has been misappropriated by lobbies spreading false alarms that younger generations will turn against senior-citizen benefits like Social Security and Medicare—the best evidence to date shows younger people support senior benefits even though they pay heavily for them—it most certainly applies in reality to the relentless withdrawal of older-generations’ support for the young. Given the refusal of today’s geriatric media and leaders to honestly discuss the real generation war, the development of a younger-generation media remains a vital imperative.