Scott MacKay Commentary: College Commencement Season And Student Debt

May 27, 2016

It’s college graduation season, a time of family and school pride. But RIPR Political Analyst Scott MacKay points out why this year’s grads also face some anxiety.

'Tis the time of Lilacs, caps and gowns and the symphony of morning birdsong spilling though the bedroom window. Proud parents mingle with bored siblings taking selfies of platitude-filled ceremonies suffused by the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance."

Job opportunities are more plentiful  for this year’s graduates than those of five or six years ago. Yet when the bromides end, too many students face the ice-water shower of crushing student debt.

Rhode Island graduates have the dubious distinction of carrying one of the nation’s highest debt loads,  an  average of nearly $32,000 per student. The only worse states are New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

If you wonder why millennials and college students like Bernie Sanders so much, keep in mind the debts they carry along with their sheepskins.  Sanders  has proposed free public college tuition. This plan has won cheers from students. It has also drawn scorn, particularly among conservatives, who view Sanders as a radical Santa Claus intent on buying youth votes  with a program the nation can’t afford.

Sanders plan seems to some another government giveaway, yet it  actually has deep roots in American society, harkening to the Civil-War era Morrill Act, the federal program that created land-grant state universities. More recently came the post-World War II G.I. Bill, which financed college for military veterans, helping to create the strongest middle-class the world has ever known.

Public colleges were given even more taxpayer money in the 1960s and 1970s, which kept tuition low as Baby-Boomers flocked to campuses. Rhode Islanders of a certain age can recall graduating from a state university owing little or nothing at all.

That’s all changed. Taxpayer revolts, recession and strapped state budgets have slashed support for higher education. Tuition at the University of Rhode Island has jumped more than 40 percent since 2009.

Not all of the high cost of education is due to a drop in public support. In the days of the G.I. Bill,  and for several decades after, student dorms and dining halls more resembled military barracks than today’s luxury hotels. Higher education has become corrupted by an expensive arms race for fancier student amenities, bigger stadiums and gourmet meals. Not to mention the millions paid to basketball and football coaches at Division One schools.

Some of the debt problem can be traced to students and  parents.  Lured by the sylvan campus or stadiums named after bailed-out banks or coffee and donut chains, too many kids and their parents  don’t consider the price tag.

One local result of the high-price of college; when state money to URI was slashed under then-Gov. Don Carcieri, the university had a Hobson’s choice—either cut programs and dumb down the state’s flagship state university or take in more high tuition paying students from outside the Ocean State. The choice to admit more out-of-staters was arguably a wise one. But now URI has the lowest proportion of in-state students of any New England state university, except for the University of Vermont, which started as a private school and is the six-state region’s fifth-oldest college.

Parents should be wary of colleges that load students with debt. Some of these schools have low-graduation rates and sketchy job-placement regimes. This is particularly true at for-profit institutions.

Sanders free tuition plan makes sense. Yet like all other good ideas, it could use a tweak. We could, for example, extend the G.I. bill model to other forms of national service. A student would qualify for free tuition, say, if he or she agreed to a year of giving back after graduation. A stint in the Peace Corps, City Year or Teach for America would benefit both student and nation.

Public college students generally have lower student debt than private colleges.  In Rhode Island, that means graduates of private Bryant University have debts that average about $42,000 while public Rhode Island College grads average about $23,000. (This data is from 2013; Johnson & Wales University did not participate in the survey).

Everyone from Gov. Gina Raimondo on down traces much of Rhode Island’s sluggish economic growth to a lack of educated workers. If you think that’s false, check out job expansion  in highly-educated Boston, compared to Providence, which doesn’t have as many college grads in the workforce as the Hub.

We value colleges in New England like few other places on earth. We host some of the world’s best.  It’s way past time that we increased state support for public higher ed. And decreased student debt.

That would put wider commencement-day smiles on both parents and students

Scott MacKay’s commentary airs every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40 and at 5:44 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political reporting an commentary at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org