I’ve written before in support of Pell grants—federal assistance for college tuition targeted at students from low-income families. Barriers to college entry and completion have gotten steeper in recent years, as family incomes have lagged far behind tuition increases. Think of Pell grants as a ladder to climb over those steeper barriers.
So the last thing you’d want to do is to cut rungs from that ladder. Yet that’s exactly what the House Republican budget, authored by Rep Paul Ryan, does. According to the White House, the budget changes “eligibility and funding under the Pell Grant formula so as to eliminate grants for 400,000 students and cut grants for more than 9 million others in 2013 alone.”
[Here's a new chart from the Dept of Ed where they apportion those lost grants by state.]
And for what? So millionaires can get a tax cut of almost $400,000, if you include both the new Ryan and the extended Bush tax cuts.
A few weeks ago I promoted a model of the current political economy wherein income inequality does not simply divert growth from the poor and middle class. If inequality gets high enough, it supports (buys?) a politics that reinforces itself. What better way to do so than to block the educational mobility of the poor and use the proceeds to enhance the rich? If it wasn’t so freakin’ tragic, it’d be laughably simple.
There’s another—a more global—dimension to all this. According to this OECD analysis, the US has essentially ceased making progress in terms of college attainment. The figure is a touch gnarly, but the blue (?—I’m color blind!) boxes show the tertiary, or college-level, attainment of 55-64 year olds in 2009, so people born between the mid-40s and the 50s. The light blue (??) triangles show the college attainment of the current generation of 25-34 year olds, so people born in the mid-70s through the mid-80s. This enables you to evaluate the progress made over a generation in college attainment across countries (let’s pause for some props to the OECD—they kill on this stuff).
Not only are the US attain levels now behind those of 12 other countries, but we’ve made no progress in a generation.
Politicians love to jawbone about how important education is to our future competitiveness, and to their credit, the Obama administration—members of whom are very much moved by that OECD graph—presided over a significant improvement in Pell grants. But for many in the political class, it’s just talk—or, as the new House budget shows, even worse than talk. It’s hypocrisy.
I was recently out in California, where I’ve always described the state university system as one of America’s crown jewels. Then today, I read this:
California’s State University (CSU) system announced Monday that they would close the admission process for nearly all of its 23 campuses for the Spring 2013 semester, affecting almost 16,000 students wishing to attend.
In addition, every student applying for the 2013-2014 school year will be waitlisted while officials await Gov. Brown’s proposed budget initiative to increase taxes in November. If the measure is defeated, officials will be forced to cut enrollment by an additional 20,000-25,000 students.
I spend the hours of my working life on the intersection of economics and public policy, but when I look at this evidence and read about this and similar developments across the country, I’m left with one simple question.
What are we doing?