With state legislators making sharp cuts to the funding of public colleges, average tuition and fees edging more than $8,000 per year and frustration over the ever-mounting credit debt of recent college graduates coming to a boil, college students are surely in need of financial aid or reform.
In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama threatened to cut federal funds to colleges and universities if they failed to stabilize and control the rising cost of tuition.
But will the president’s threats draw the desired reaction? Probably not.
While his proposal sounds tough, and every sane person is in favor of decreasing the cost of college, it also sounds a bit unlikely and paradoxical.
Colleges raise the cost of tuition to do a number of necessary things that keep their institution afloat, as well as adjusting for the cost of inflation. In fact, the rising tuition costs are a direct response to budgetary cuts from federal and state governments.
The federal funding that colleges and universities receive comes in the form of research funds, Pell Grants and subsidized loans. Cuts to those funds would mostly harm students, either through their wallets or through the lost opportunity to conduct valuable university research that can be put on their résumés.
If the president intends to punish the institutes in this manner, it can and will have a detrimental and direct effect upon students.
Federal funding has become decentralized from the institutions; instead of fueling and funding the actual colleges, most of the financial aid follows the individual student, for better or for worse.
Furthermore, cutting federal funding for colleges if they don’t lower or maintain cost sounds an awful lot like an unfunded mandate, similar to former President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” Act, which critics derailed as a drain on state coffers.
But something must be done, and as ideologically dismissive as the notion may be for some, the federal government must be the one to take action.
Contrary to what some of the president’s conservative critics might believe, the federal government absolutely has a place in the financial regulation of higher education. Our nation’s ability to prosper economically is now more than ever reliant on the academic success of students, particularly those majoring in hard sciences, business and engineering.
Higher education should not be a luxury; luxuries are for the few: the metaphorical 1 percent. If the country as a whole is to prosper, success must be built from the bottom up. The construction of a mansion begins with the floor, not the chimney.
The educational sector must not be forced to make any additional sacrifices. Years of budget cuts and financial slights from both the federal and state government have put them in this corner. It’s not a point of pride when university presidents are forced to discuss the prices of their schools. The academic exclusivity colleges and universities tout should arise from academic performance, not high price tags.
President Obama has made some valuable achievements to make a college degree more accessible for students, including doubling funds for Pell Grants, capping the maximum amount of monthly student-loan repayment and introducing the $2,500 American Opportunity tax credit for tuition expenses. But now it’s time for our elected leaders to show their commitment to American students.
Only the power of cold, wordy legislation from Congress can bring about the education reforms students need.