Earl Hadley is the education coordinator for the Campaign for America's Future.
Senator Rick Santorum, R-Pa., recently announced that weapons of mass destruction had been discovered in Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld even backed him up in a carefully worded statement. As it turns out, the weapons were old and near useless, and despite the congressman gaining a brief moment in the spotlight, the media quickly saw through his rhetoric and grandstanding.
Sadly, the press is not holding the Bush administration or its conservative allies in Congress to the same standard when it comes to college affordability.
On July 1, interest rates on college loans are set to rise, in some categories by as much as two percent, costing student and parent borrowers thousands of dollars over the life of their loans. The average tuition at public four-year schools has gone up by 40 percent since 2001. At the same time, the maximum Pell Grant—the primary federal scholarship program—has been frozen for four years.
Two decades ago, a maximum grant covered half of a college education, but today’s maximum grant of $4,050 only covers a third of average total charges, including tuition, fees, room and board at four-year public colleges and universities—$12,127. Not surprisingly, Americans report that they are having a harder time paying for college. The struggle of millions of students and families to pay for a college education, however, is not the result of random market forces.
By acts of commission and omission, congressional conservatives are responsible for this state of affairs. Conservatives running Congress removed $12 billion dollars from the student loan program that should have gone to grants; failed to extend the college tuition tax deduction, instead opting for tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations; and cut grant aid in last year’s budget.
It’s outrageous that politicians are ignoring rising college costs. Annually,200,000 students are priced out of a college education, while 400,000 attend a two-year school instead of a four-year institution because of financial pressure. These numbers represent the crushing of individual dreams, but they also take a toll on our economy. The Republican failure on college affordability does a disservice to those who have earned a college education but cannot afford it, and to the country that can’t afford to lose the contributions that those same students might make if they were able to attend school.
Politicians of all stripes talk about competing globally and the importance of higher education in preparing the work-force of the 21st century. But words don’t make this a reality; they don’t put 200,000 qualified students into the classroom. The conservative majority’s refusal to take basic steps like increasing the value of the maximum Pell Grant demonstrates that they are abandoning not only middle- and working-class families fighting for a college education, but their own promises about strengthening our economy.
The Republican majority should be banned from bemoaning the state of the American worker or college affordability. Their continual refusal to help make college affordable makes them fully complicit in weakening both. For example: Representative George Miller, D-Calif., and Senator Richard Durbin, D-Ill., have introduced bills that would cut interest rates in half on new student and parent loans. This is not a radical proposal, but a simple down-payment toward making college affordable. Congressional leadership, however, has not allowed a vote on the measure, despite having no problem earlier this year in increasing the interest rate parents pay on loans for their children’s education through the budget reconciliation bill.
These acts have consequences. Conservatives are making it more difficult to afford college and in the process are making it more difficult for our economy to utilize its primary resource—an educated citizenry.
The priorities of the majority party are clear; it’s time for the media to stop giving them a free pass on college affordability. There will be many stories about the July 1 interest rate increases, but few will point out the Republican hypocrisy. If the press can hold them accountable when they make false claims about discovering weapons of mass destruction, then the press should hold them accountable when they make false claims about being concerned about America’s students and families.