The country is doing little to make college an affordable and realistic goal for American families.
We have believed wholeheartedly in investing the money of all the people on the education of the people. That conviction, backed up by taxes and dollars, is no accident, for it is the logical application of our faith in democracy.
Man's present day control of the affairs of nature is the direct result of investment in education. And the democratization of education has made it possible for outstanding ability, which would otherwise be completely lost, to make its outstanding contribution to the commonweal. We cannot afford to overlook any source of human raw material. Genius flowers in most unexpected places; "it is the impetus of the undistinguished host that hurls forth a Diomed or a Hector." –Franklin D Roosevelt
As has been widely reported in the press of late, students graduating from college this spring are not just facing a jobs crisis; they are also facing a debt crisis. The New York Times recently reported, for example, that the average debt burden for graduating college seniors is now approaching $25,000, with ten percent of all graduates owing more than $50,000 and three percent owing more than $100,000. Taken together, total student loan debt in the United States now exceeds $1 trillion—more than all credit card debt in the country.
Equally daunting are the job prospects that current graduates face. It is estimated that more than half of all 2012 graduates will still be out of work a year from now, as was the case for the 2010 and 2011 graduating classes. What is more, even those graduates lucky enough to find a job will earn wages far below their counterparts who graduated in the years before the Great Recession, making it all the harder for them to keep up with—much less pay down—their student loans.
Facing high debt, bleak job prospects, and low wages, many students (and parents) are asking themselves if the high cost of education is really worth it. Current statistics suggest that pursuing a college degree is still a good investment. The unemployment rate among 21- to 24-year-olds with a college education is roughly half what it is for those with only a high school diploma, and the lifetime earnings of a college graduate still exceed the earnings of those without a four-year degree. But if—as some economists argue—our economic problems are more structural than cyclical and high unemployment and low wages will be with us for some time, then taking on a significant debt burden in the pursuit of higher education may in fact be a mistake.
In light of growing concerns about student debt, the Obama administration is pushing a proposal that would require schools to provide straightforward, standardized information on how much debt students should expect to incur over the course of their tenure in college. In addition, a bill has been put forward in the Senate that would require lenders and college financial aid officers to provide students with better information about their borrowing options, including the difference in cost between federal loans and private loans.
While these are welcome steps, they really boil down to treating the symptoms, not the disease. The real issue confronting students today is not the value of a higher education, but the cost. President Obama alluded to this in his 2012 State of the Union address, when he argued that our nation’s colleges and universities should do more to bring down the price of tuition. He also urged the states to make education a higher priority in their budgets. But the truth is that over the past ten years, state support for higher education has declined by about 25 percent, while the cost of tuition and fees at state schools has increased 72 percent.
Like the growing disparity in wealth and income that has emerged in this second Gilded Age, this combination of the decline in state support coupled with the rise in fees for both public and private colleges has rendered the dream of higher education less and less affordable for working families. And, as we have seen, those who do choose to pursue their educational ambitions do so at a huge cost, a cost that is becoming more suspect in a society where good jobs with decent wages are becoming a thing of the past.
In the middle of the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt confronted a society that was equally burdened by the perils of structural inequality. But he was not content to merely provide relief to those suffering from the despair of unemployment or the scourge of poverty. Indeed, FDR often characterized the relief measures he initiated as temporary. What really concerned him was the far deeper question of structural reform: how to rid America of the one-third the nation that was “ill-clad, ill-housed, ill-nourished.”
It was this motivation that led to some of the most profound pieces of legislation that came out of the New Deal, including the Social Security Act, the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the National Housing Act. It also gave us such critical financial reforms as the separation of commercial and investment banking and the creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation under Glass-Steagall, as well as the establishment of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Roughly ten years later, as the Second World War was drawing to a close, FDR returned to this theme with his call for “a second bill of rights”—an “economic bill of rights”—that would include not only the right to “a useful and remunerative job” with an adequate income, but also the “right to a good education.”
To make good on the latter, the Roosevelt administration passed the “G.I Bill of Rights” later that year. The G.I. Bill represents one of the most significant government-led commitments to higher education and job training in our nation’s history. Under its terms, returning veterans received a host of benefits, including full tuition and book and living expense payments for those wishing to pursue a higher education. For those not wishing to go to college, the act also provided support for vocational training. The impact of the G.I Bill on postwar America was tremendous. In the next seven years, approximately 8 million veterans would take advantage of the education benefits. As a result, millions of Americans who might never have dreamed of going to college were able to do so, Millions more enhanced their earning power and job prospects through the vocational training and other educational benefits.
Of course, the G.I. Bill was not free; it required serious expenditures on the part of the federal government. But for FDR and his generation, this was an investment in America’s future well worth making. It was, as Roosevelt liked to say, an investment in our nation’s most precious resource, its “human capital.” To neglect America’s human capital, to cut back on our support for education, was simply not an option, for in FDR’s view if “we skimp on that capital, if we exhaust our natural resources and weaken the capacity of our human beings, then we shall go the way of all weak nations.”
If we are serious about the need to improve our economy, keep America competitive, and provide a hopeful and prosperous future for our children, then perhaps it is time we confronted the real issue that stands at the root of the student debt and jobs crisis: the woefully inadequate level of public support for higher education. No doubt the deficit soothsayers in Congress and elsewhere will tell us that we cannot afford such an investment. But the legacy of the 1930s and 40s suggests quite the opposite. Thanks to the G.I. Bill and the many other provisions of the New Deal, the better educated and better paid work force that emerged in the decades after World War II made the American economy—and the American worker—the envy of the world.
FDR warned us that “no country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources.” Yet the unfair burden we have placed on this generation of Americans—a generation that increasingly sees little reason to pursue post secondary education at such high costs and falling gains—suggests that we have chosen to abandon this lesson. In doing so, we have done much more than merely turn our backs on the millions of young people who dream of going to college. We have turned our backs on America.
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.