Biden and Duncan Talk College Affordability at Ohio High School

In Ohio, where Vice President Joe Biden visited a high school on Thursday to promote the issue of college affordability, more than two-thirds of college students borrow money to pay for their education. Last year, thanks to rapidly rising tuition costs, each owed an average $27,000-plus upon graduation—a record-setting, dream-shattering level of debt with potentially dire consequences.

“If you take the promise of access to college out of the American Dream, how much have you broken the dream?” Biden asked the audience of students, NEA members, and parents in Gahanna, Ohio. “The single distinctive feature of America, the backbone of our country, is its middle class and the certitude that the dream is real.”

Vice President Joe Biden, accompanied by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, speaks about college affordability, Thursday, Jan. 12, at Lincoln High School in Gahanna, Ohio.

As college costs soar—in California alone, tuition and fees at state universities have increased 224 percent since 1998—it’s becoming increasingly clear that poor and middle-class students no longer can afford the American Dream. The door to high-quality higher education, which can open their minds to critical thinking, much-needed jobs for America, and greater income potential, is closing in their faces.

That’s why President Obama met last month with about a dozen college leaders in a session that focused on college costs. It’s also why Obama has been such a strong defender of the Pell Grant program, which currently provides assistance to more than 9 million poor students across the country. Late last year, House Republicans announced they would seek to slash Pell Grants by $4.3 billion and disqualify 554,320 students—an inexplicable move as this nation seeks to create jobs and opportunities. The Obama administration is also taking steps to make college more affordable by capping student loan repayment, expanding the income-based student loan repayment program, and offering borrowers the chance to consolidate their loans and reduce their interest rates.

“This is about the nation’s interests,” said Biden, who noted that 68 percent of jobs in America in the next decade will require a college degree. “Do you think we can lead the world in the 21st century when 15 other nations out-educate us? Is that remotely possible? Do you think they’re cutting money for education in China?”

A hard look at college affordability also means a hard look at education funding. Student tuition is soaring for a number of reasons, but primarily because states have drastically cut their support to higher education in recent years.

Consider that during the 1980s, colleges in Michigan received about 75 percent of their funds from the state and 25 percent from student tuition. These days, the numbers have flipped, and it’s only getting worse. Last year, the governor and state legislature cut funding by another 15 percent.

At the same time, even as faculty salaries and pay for support staff employees have remained stagnant, the amount of money going to a growing body of highly paid college administrators has skyrocketed. Again, in California, where member of the California Faculty Association held a one-day protest strike this past fall, executive pay has increased 69 percent over the past decade.

“The leadership is completely out of touch with the people CSU serves. Students are paying more for less and everyone is fed up with the Chancellor’s obsessive ‘executive first’ management approach,” said California Faculty Association president Lillian Taiz.

Last week, a California state senator introduced legislation to limit the pay for any state college president to $343,269. At the same time, under his proposal, California State University trustees would be prevented from dishing out pay hikes or bonuses, if they also have raised student tuition or fees in the previous three years. (Last year, the CSU trustees raised the pay for one college president by $100,000—on the very same day that they hiked tuition by 12 percent.)

And this week, Connecticut officials announced the elimination of 24 senior-level jobs in state higher education, a move that will save about $5 million, as the average pay for each job is more than $141,000 or more than twice as much as the average full-time faculty member in that state. (Much of the savings, officials said, would go into hiring faculty and improving educational services.)

In the meantime, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who accompanied Biden to Gahanna’s Lincoln High School on Thurday, has called on colleges to “think more creatively” about costs. Financial incentives could be applied, he suggested, that would link federal funds to a college’s demonstrated ability to graduate its students.

Photo: AP Photo/Jay LaPrete