In the recent Democratic Presidential Debate, self-proclaimed “Democratic Socialist” Sen. Bernie Sanders reiterated his call for free college tuition. Undoubtedly, working- and middle-class families who aspire for their children to attend college cheered. For, it appears that, as Chicano historian Rudy Acuña maintains, higher education in the U.S. has been privatized. Working- and middle-class families (and the overwhelming majority of Chicano/Latino families are in this category) have, for all intents and purposes, been priced out of higher education.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Acuña’s home state of California. Up through 1966, tuition at state colleges and universities in California was free (that’s right: zero dollars) for California residents. At least in terms of cost, this made college very accessible for working- and middle-class students. But California’s egalitarian college-tuition system came to a screeching halt in 1967, when Republican Ronald Reagan was sworn in as Governor.
Reagan: “get rid undesirables” with tuition…
President Ronald Reagan
Reagan was militant about imposing tuition in institutions of higher education, saying that, “Free tuition is not a right: it is a privilege of the deserving” (The Daily Bruin, Feb. 18, 1970). The 1960s and 1970s were characterized by much student activism (for civil rights, against the Vietnam War, clean environment, women rights, etc.) on college campuses. Chicana(o) students were very much in the mix of this activism. Reagan’s imposition of tuition in California schools was in large part meant to punish the student activists. In a press conference two weeks after his tuition proposal, Reagan stated that tuition would help “…get rid of undesirables. Those there to agitate and not to study might think twice before they pay tuition … they might think twice how much they want to pay to carry a picket sign” (The Daily Bruin, Feb. 18, 1970).
Tuition today at UCLA for California residents is $13,806 and at Acuña’s institution, Cal State Northridge, resident tuition is $6,564. And the average annual community college resident tuition in California is about $4,988. But this trend is not only in California. In the 1970s, resident tuition at the University of Texas at Austin, for example, ranged from $100 to $200. Today it is $9,938. When I enrolled at the University of Arizona in 1965, resident tuition was about $150. Today it is $11,400.
College tuition is five times the rate of inflation.
Even taking inflation into account, the rise in college tuition rates is exorbitant. Over the past three decades the cost of obtaining a college degree has increased 1,120 percent, about five times the rate of inflation. (“Pell Grants Cover Smallest Portion Of College Costs In History As GOP Calls For Cuts,” Huffington Post, August 29, 2012)
Even worse are the for-profit “universities” and “colleges,” who, according to a recent U.S. Senate report, “…devote tremendous amounts of resources to non-education related spending (i.e., marketing and profit sharing)” (“For Profit Higher Education: The Failure to Safeguard the Federal Investment and Ensure Student Success,” U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, July, 2012). Tuition at Grand Canyon University and the University of Phoenix, both of which operate in Arizona, is $17,150 and $16,360, respectively.
Republicans declare war on education…
Several factors are involved in the skyrocketing cost of higher education. One is that universities are increasingly adopting a business model perspective, that is, they approach their work from a profit-loss, revenue-generating perspective. In these models, students are perceived as “customers,” as revenue generators. Another major factor is that legislatures, particularly Republican ones, have in essence declared war on education and have set out to starve universities and colleges. Nothing exemplifies that better than the fact that here in my state of Arizona, the Republican legislature’s 2015-16 allocation to the Maricopa Community College system and to Pima Community College for this fiscal year is $0.00, a cut of $15.6 million from last year. Arizona universities were cut by $99 million for fiscal year 2016, which amounts to approximately 13 percent of their state funding.
Pima College and other institutions aggressively recruit out-of-state students who must pay more.
To offset the cuts in funding, schools are more aggressively recruiting out-of-state and foreign students, who pay much higher tuition than local yokels. Pima Community College, for example, recently sent a team to China to recruit students. The China trip was justified in the name of improving the college’s “diversity,” but its real purpose is money—foreign students pay $329.00 per-unit while local residents pay about $75 per unit.
Colleges and universities love student loans…
The starving of public higher education has led to the current student-loan crisis that we are experiencing. To cover tuition and other costs (lab fees, books, etc.) students are borrowing ever-larger amounts, resulting in an average debt that now exceeds $27,000. Yet only 50 percent of students pursuing a bachelor’s degree—and 21 percent of those pursuing an associate’s degree—complete their college programs (“Rethinking Higher Education Business Models,” Center for American Progress, March 28, 2012). Student quotes from the U.S. Senate Committee report cited above are instructive. One student said, “I went to school to better my life, and when my loans become due, I will actually be in worse financial shape then I was before I attend[ed] school.” Another student testified that he took out student loans “…in the hopes of improving my knowledge so that I could improve my worth in society, for a higher paying job. Instead now I have a loan to pay off and absolutely nothing to show for it.”
Students are caught in the student-loan racket.
Colleges and universities benefit greatly from this student-loan racket. The student loan money goes directly to the institution, which takes its cut right off the top. Financially, whether or not a student stays until graduation is of no matter to the school. The business-model school—whether public or private—measures success by how much money it brings in and not by how many students it graduates. Students who leave before graduating will be replaced by other students who come in with their student loans, and the cycle continues.
Pell Grants were created to help students from low-income backgrounds achieve college degrees. Originally, Pell Grants paid 100% of the costs of a two-year degree and 77% of the costs at a public university. Today those percentages are 62 and 36, respectively. As a result, the U.S. Department of Education reports, Pell Grant recipients are more than twice as likely to take out student loans as non-Pell students. Nine out of ten Pell Grant recipients have student loan debt. Thus, students from the poorest families who receive Pell Grants have more debt than ever before when they graduate college. Since 2008, Republicans in Congress have been trying to reduce the Pell Grants even more—or do away with them entirely. (“Pell Grants Cover Smallest Portion Of College Costs In History As GOP Calls For Cuts,” Huffington Post, August 29, 2012)
Hillary Clinton’s response to Sanders’ proposal: disingenuous and a cop-out…
Can Hillary relate to working class parents trying to get their kids into college?
The Chicano(a)-Latina(o) community is a working-class community, with a healthy chunk of middle-class folks. Thus, these educational dynamics affect us in a very direct and meaningful way. Which is why Sanders’ call for free college tuition should resonate with us (as should President Obama’s call for free community college tuition). If something is not done to change the current dynamics, we will inevitably revert to the “bad ol’ days,” when higher education was the elite, exclusive enclave of the rich, with maybe a token smattering of brown folk.
Hillary Clinton’s response to Sanders’ proposal—I don’t want to make college free for Donald Trump’s kids—is disingenuous and a cop-out. The fact is that the children of rich folks can and often do go to private universities. But even if some rich kids get to go to college free, we are still ahead because there are many more working- and middle-class kids than rich kids. In any event, Sanders’s proposal is predicated on taxing the rich, so the rich won’t be getting a totally free ride. Maybe Clinton doesn’t know that the public K-12 school system is free and that children of well-off parents can attend public schools and that some even do. To my knowledge, neither she nor anyone else has called for an end to the public K-12 system. Besides, multi-millionaire Clinton, as a parent, cannot relate to the stress experienced by working- and middle-class parents who want to have their children attend a public university or college—her daughter attended a private university. c/s
Copyright 2015 by Salomon Baldenegro. To contact Sal write: firstname.lastname@example.org