The reward for higher education should not be a lifetime of debt

March 26, 2023 12:08 pm

College education is out of reach for many Americans. (Photo illustration via Canva)

Those who are thinking of entering college, those who are already there and even those who have graduated might want to review their notes on the political theory of an Englishman by the name of John Locke.

Locke is credited as one of the writers who laid the foundation and justification for the American’s rebellion that led to the Revolutionary War. He held that when people enter into a relationship with a government, it creates a social contract or compact. In exchange for allowing the government to rule, the government has a obligation to protect the life, liberty and property of the governed. An individual has to follow the rule of society and, if they do so, they are protected from the lawless acts of another.

There is also inherent in the modern relationship of a citizen to government that when the ruling authority requires or suggests that person performs some task, the act will be rewarded. For example, when wages are set aside for retirement, like Social Security, the money will be there when the person retires.

Nowhere has the government promise been broken more strikingly that in the incentive to pursue the goal of a college degree. Today, upon graduation, the graduate is confronted with a mountain of debt when the decree was supposed to lead to better employment and financial enhancement.

It was not always this way. In fact, until a decade or so ago, the promise of financial reward for a higher education decree was pretty much par for the course. To understand how this disappointing change came about it is important to remember the admonition that “an ounce of history is worth a pound of logic.”

There has always been a bedrock belief, since the time of Thomas Jefferson, that a well-educated public was a national asset. Further, that a good education was the poor person’s avenue to success.

The first real push for college decrees was imprinted on the country’s mind in 1944 when a survey of soldiers in the European theater of the war discovered that for post-war benefits, there was a strong demand for access to college. Thus was born the G.I. Bill of Rights, which granted returning soldiers full grants to attend and graduate from four-year institutions.

The next real push for education access came in 1958, with passage of the National Student Defense Education Act. The need for this law came about because we discovered that we were losing the race to space to the then-Soviet Union. Their rockets went into orbit, ours blew up on the launch pad.

A country-wide effort was put in to place to develop scientists, mathematicians and even teachers to teach teachers how to teach. Loans were available, the repayment withheld until after graduation, the interest was modest and generally, thanks to public support, college was affordable.

All this changed after the Great Recession of 2008. Interest on student loans was allowed to reach commercial levels, the interest on the loans was compounded every year and tuition costs and fees exploded.  They exploded because conservative legislators started cutting funding to public universities. To make up for the shortfalls, tuition was increased.

In fact, in a 10-year period, tuition costs went up by 20%. We have now reached the point where students, who are qualified and talented, are forgoing higher education because they cannot conceive of ever being able to pay off the financial obligation they will incur.

America and Iowa confront some choices here. In Iowa, remember how proud we were when our high school graduates placed nationally first or second in ACT scores and literacy and when the University of Northern Iowa was recognized across the country for teacher training.

Does the Jefferson belief that education was the key to the maintenance of a democracy still hold true?  Should higher learning simply be vocational in scope and purpose? I mean, are we merely training our citizens to do a job for national and international corporations, watching them retain their enormous profits and then bailing them out with our tax dollars when they fail?

As with student loans, Locke gave us the answer, which is simply to turn to the ballot box and vote to continue the decline or once again insist that America is still the best country in which to reside, which includes educated, highly skilled citizens.

This column was originally published by the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.

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Dave Nagle
Dave Nagle

Dave Nagle, of Cedar Falls, is a former Iowa Democratic Party state chairman and three-term U.S. congressman from Iowa.