Scott Keyes at Think Progress notes the following comment from Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), who chairs the House subcommittee on higher education:
FOXX: I went through school, I worked my way through, it took me seven years, I never borrowed a dime of money. He borrowed a little bit because we both were totally on our own when we went to college, totally. [...] I have very little tolerance for people who tell me that they graduate with $200,000 of debt or even $80,000 of debt because there’s no reason for that. We live in an opportunity society and people are forgetting that. I remind folks all the time that the Declaration of Independence says “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” You don’t have it dumped in your lap.
A major problem with our leaders is that they are approaching what is happening in the public university through a mental model of a world that no longer exists.
EdwardMurray at DailyKos notes "Virginia Foxx went to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 1968. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 1968, the average yearly cost for tuition, room, and board for a public university was $1,245 which, in today’s words, is one thousand two hundred and forty-five dollars for a year’s worth of college. For today’s average college student, that dollar amount is roughly equivalent to the cost of a textbook and a garbage bag." Quick and the Ed has notes "Representative Foxx would have paid $279 for the academic year—about $2,140 today. That’s about equivalent to what students pay right now at community colleges, not public four-year institutions—especially not public flagships." Rebuild the Dream has a petition going on the matter.
Beyond the fact that it was much cheaper, how does University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's tutition look on a chart? Digging into UNC-Chapel Hill's Office of Institutional Research and Assessment website, which has online collections of several previously published yearly reports (data from here, here, here and here), we can construct the following graph. Some years, especially earlier ones, are missing. Data is adjusted for inflation:
As you can see, tuition is roughly around $2,000 a year for most of the 20th century after the Great Depression. Starting in the late 1990s and early 2000s it skyrockets. It shows no sign of slowing down, either. This is a political choice, based on what we want the university to do and how we want to provide it as a country. There was a political consesus that made sure Virginia Foxx had college available as a publicly-provided good - her "opportunity society" is a world of high quality "public options" available to those who can use them - and now there is a new set of active choices to have students at UNC-Chapel Hill graduate with debt. Foxx should know better than to ascribe it as a simple morality play. If she doesn't know this, which is possible, that's a major problem.
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