Recent reports have indicated that accumulated student loan debt now exceeds $1 trillion and is greater than the nation’s combined credit-card debt. In response to this bad news, we hear the usual: We are broke and must adapt to the new normal of diminishing resources and austerity.
With the Legislature now in session, we have a chance to reverse course on what is a profound generational betrayal of our young people. I refuse to believe that “we” are broke or that we are living in a period of diminished resources. I am forced to turn to the facts rather than the fantasy that passes for conventional wisdom these days.
Did he say free? Yes, free. I paid absolutely nothing for three years of excellent education with outstanding faculty. You can adjust for inflation all you want, but free is free.
After I transferred to UCLA, I paid a whopping $1,657 for two years of quality education. Imagine, a BA degree awarded from an elite university for less than $1,700.
Minnesota used to have low tuition too
But that’s California, you say – a state run by hippies. Well, Minnesota also used to have low tuition. According to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, between 1993 and 2009, a period when per-capita income in Minnesota increased from $22,302 to $42,549, tuition at the University of Minnesota went from $3,421 to $10,756. At State Universities the increase was from $2,521 to $6,373, and at two-year schools the increase was from $1,950 to $4,548. These increases were during a time when the wealth of Minnesota nearly doubled.
But heck, that was Minnesota. Was America a richer nation when I went to college? Were we somehow less broke? Of course not. As the chart below indicates, we were a poorer nation by every measure in 1980 than we are now. In 1980, in constant dollars, our per capita GDP was $25,640 and today it is $42,204. Looked at another way, the United States is more than twice as rich today as we were in 1970.
(millions of 2005 dollars)
|Real GDP per capita
(year 2005 dollars)
So I ask you, where are the diminished resources? Where is this broke nation? To find out who is broke you can visit our state colleges and universities, where students are paying super high tuition because my generation has decided to slam the door shut on the very opportunity that allowed me to become an educated citizen.
Today, Minnesota state policy (Minnesota Statutes 136F.01) is that the state will fund 67 percent of the cost of a college education. In fact we are paying only about 30 percent of the cost of a college education, and students are paying the remaining 70 percent. MnSCU institutions are incredibly efficient. MnSCU appropriations for this biennium are the same in real dollars as they were in 1999; we are educating many tens of thousands more students, and the total cost of educating a student per capita has remained roughly the same.
Reneging on commitment started with Pawlenty
The state’s decision to renege on its commitment to paying two-thirds of the cost of a public education began under the Pawlenty administration. As recently as 2002, the state honored the law and only began its generational betrayal under the former governor, a man who, like me, needed and used public higher education to jumpstart his career. [PDF, page 45]
It is time to refute the lie that we are broke! WE are not broke! Some of us are broke, some of us are in debt and going deeper into debt. But the United States is a richer nation now than it was 30 years ago, or even 10 years ago. The trouble is that all of the money has gone to the top 5 percent and those at the top are not as generous today as they were 30 years ago when I got a world class education for $1,657.
America has the money to rebuild its infrastructure and educate its citizens. In 1955, when we built the interstate highway system and expanded opportunity in public higher education, per capita GDP was $15,128.12,not the $42,204 it was in 2010. In those days we acted like a nation that looked out for one another, and we prospered together. Today we act more like a pack of wolves, except that wolves do not eat their young.
Jeff Kolnick is an associate professor of history at Southwest Minnesota State University.