Is higher education only for the privileged? Over the last few decades, between rising tuition costs, the ongoing economic determinism in admissions, and the impossibility of paying off student loans, the answer increasingly seems to be yes. As Americans and as Jews, we believe this state of affairs is neither necessary nor desirable, and our advocacy can help bring positive change on this issue.
Most members of the UCLA community, where I was teaching for the last two years and encountered many homeless students, are unaware that hundreds of their classmates are homeless. This is but one example of a prominent university where the problem of student poverty pokes its ugly head. University costs have become crippling for so many, and the excessive predatory loans create long-term debt and significantly diminish the potential for social mobility.
Last year, accounting for tuition, fees, and room and board, Sarah Lawrence College cost $59,170, NYU was $56,787, and Columbia University (one of my alma maters) was $56,310. These are on the highest end, but there are many private colleges and universities right behind them. Today, with these frighteningly high principal and high interest rates, the average debt for students graduating from college is $25,250 – this can take decades to pay off. Even more alarming, outstanding student loan debt reached $1 trillion in 2012, which is even higher than credit card debt in the United States.
This is an issue that President Obama has recently started to address. In April 2012, he said: “In America, higher education cannot be a luxury. It’s an economic imperative that every family must be able to afford.”
In 1900, only about 2 percent of eligible adults attended college. Today, about 65 percent enroll in higher education. The biggest boost in college enrollment occurred after World War II, when the GI bill provided incentives that allowed veterans to go back to school rather than be forced into the workforce. By 1947, nearly half of all those admitted to college were veterans, and nearly half of the 16 million veterans took advantage of the GI bill to attend college courses by the time the program ended in 1956.
Another boon to higher education was low-cost or free tuition. The City University of New York (CUNY) has long provided such an education to hundreds of thousands of students, and many of the leading intellectuals of the immediate pre and post-World War II era earned their degrees at CUNY. In 1976, CUNY initiated a system whereby students who met financial requirements could receive aid from a state-funded Tuition Assistance Program and federal help from Pell Grants and tax credits. These programs continue to enable nearly half of CUNY’s students to attend tuition-free. The challenge is to continue to provide quality, low-cost education for hundreds of thousands of students in the face of increasing state and federal pressure to cut programs that benefit education and aid to the poor.
Our society is no longer a trustworthy system of meritocracy, as financial barriers have become too determinative. When students with high test scores from low-income families are compared to students with high test scores from upper-income families, 80 percent of those in the top quarter of the income distribution go on to get college degrees, compared to only 44 percent of those in the bottom quarter. Thomas Edsall wrote: “Instead of serving as a springboard to social mobility as it did for the first decades after World War II, college education today is reinforcing class stratification…”
The income achievement gap is deepening and must be halted. In the 21st century marketplace, a college degree is almost a necessity. The difference in earnings of a high school graduate compared to a college graduate increased in the 1980s from 50 percent to 80 percent. This trend has not changed: In 2007, those with a high school degree annually earned slightly more than $30,000, compared to those with a bachelor’s degree earning just less than $60,000. The income gap can be seen even within higher education: The large gap in admissions between competitive colleges and community colleges proves this, with 76 percent of students at competitive colleges coming from families in the top half of the income distribution and 80 percent of students at community colleges coming from low-income families.
At the same time, need-based scholarships and grants, upon which students from low-income homes rely, are becoming more limited. Pell Grant awards have been declining, while tuition costs are increasing at a rate faster than inflation. In 1979-1980, the maximum Pell Grant covered 99 percent of the cost of a community college, 77 percent at a public four-year college, and 36 percent at a private four-year college. By 2010-2011, however, these percentages had dropped to 62 percent, 36 percent, and 15 percent, respectively.
Anthony Carnevale, the co-author of “How Increasing College Access Is Increasing Inequality, and What to Do about It,” wrote: “The education system is an increasingly powerful mechanism for the intergenerational reproduction of privilege.” In addition to significantly increasing income, a college degree works to prevent downward mobility. The trends that indicate rising tuition costs, increased loan burden, and higher earnings for those with advanced degrees must inspire us to solve the challenges of intergenerational mobility. If not, we are heading to a further polarized and unequal society, making it close to impossible to attain the “American Dream.”
The disparity of wealth is one of the most significant problems in America today, correlated with the lack of opportunity for educational growth. We must remove barriers to education by increasing government assistance and putting more restrictions on tuition hikes. The model used by CUNY, coupled with a commitment to attract talented professors and a diverse student body, could help rejuvenate higher education. Finally, we must ensure that Congress acts before the end of the year to avoid the “fiscal cliff” of mandated spending cuts and tax increases that, among other debilitating effects on the economy, would further inhibit students from paying tuition or paying off student loans.
In Jewish law and ethics, education and the alleviation of poverty are two of the top Jewish values. We can address and strengthen both by reforming college accessibility. Jewish communities historically demanded money from all for the “kuppah” and the “tamchui” (funds for the needy), and these funds helped to ensure that all could have food, clothes, burial and education. In the Talmud we learn the value of education: “Rav Hamnunah taught: Jerusalem was only destroyed because students were neglected in her,” and “Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said in the name of Rabbi Yehudah Nesiyah: the world endures only for the breath of students” (Shabbat 199b). Neglecting education destroys society. We not only help the poor and create a more fair society when we make college more accessible; we also ensure a stronger country with a more competitive advantage, which benefits all of us. Advocate today for change in higher education policy!
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"
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