Over the last 30 years, American higher education policy seems to have been designed to ensure poor economic performance in this country. In the economic stimulus package now being discussed, we can begin to reverse that course.


Here’s what happened: From the end of World War II through the 1970s, we seemed to think, as a nation, that providing higher education was the key to economic development. And it was. Higher education benefited the recipient and society, and society was willing to pay for that benefit. We paid partly through charitable donations, partly through public funds, and a little bit — a very little bit — through tuition. Then we changed our mind.

Conservative orthodoxy told us to treat higher education as a huge benefit to the recipient, which the recipient — not the community — ought to pay for. We began to resent and cut back on the public support given higher education institutions. The result: Tuition and fees at U.S. colleges increased 439 percent from 1982 to 2007, while median family income rose 147 percent. The cost of one year at a public college or university equals more than a quarter of median family income. Even at a two-year institution, the cost of a year’s study is nearly half a poor family’s income. We’ve priced education out of the average family’s reach. Not surprisingly, the United States is now one of the few countries in the world where the education level of those 25-34 is lower than that of older adults.

Think about that. If higher education is the key to economic success, we’re systematically denying opportunity to our younger generation. In less academic terms: We’re screwing our young people big time.

We’re providing that screwing in two ways: For many, we’re pricing them out of the market so they’ll never have a chance to go to college. But for many others, we’re giving them the opportunity to go into crushing debt so that they can afford to go to school.

I wasn’t aware of all this until five years ago, when I started a small, weekend graduate program at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Our program attempts to teach students how to effectively and ethically advocate for what they believe in. I’m not surprised that our students are idealistic, competent and committed. I was shocked to discover that they’re also hugely in debt. — The average student entering our program already carries $35,000 in education debt. That’s a result of public policy gone horribly wrong.

Like subprime mortgages, the college debt system produces constant public policy disincentives that skew behaviors and yield perverse outcomes. Two college grads get married, pool their debt (easily over $100,000) and then are stuck. They have to chase the highest-paying jobs; they can’t afford to buy a house; they can’t afford to have kids. It’s difficult, for example, to lure medical doctors into family practice because that specialty doesn’t pay nearly enough to pay off the student loans an M.D. has to generate. In our program, students are trying to become, among other things, community organizers (yes, as President Obama once was). But community organizing or working on legislative staffs or doing advocacy for nonprofits doesn’t pay all that much — many of our 75 graduates have taken jobs whose annual income is less than their college debt.

The Obama administration is working on aid to higher education as part of its economic stimulus package. Unfortunately, it has not proposed the one action that would capture the nation’s attention and signal that we’ve decided, as an American community, to make higher education affordable for everyone: Pay off all federal student loans. The amount is just a bit under $70 billion. That single act would make it possible for the hundreds of thousands of student-debtors to become active consumers, something we’re trying to encourage in difficult economic times. Each month, student-loan debtors together would have hundreds of millions of dollars available that once went to loan repayments. That money could go to helping them survive a job loss, or buy a car, or pay off other debt.

Though I obviously haven’t seen the specifics (neither have members of Congress), initial reports suggest the higher education aid in the stimulus package is aimed at institutions of higher learning, not at students and not at tuition levels. If we don’t do something soon to dramatically lower the cost of public higher education for students, we’ll simply continue the current trends: more and more expensive higher education for a smaller and smaller proportion of the population. If we’re actually trying to save the middle class, that’s a direction that simply won’t work.

Wy Spano is director of the Masters of Advocacy and Political Leadership (MAPL) Program at the University of Minnesota Duluth.