Scott MacKay Commentary: Time To Cut College Student Loan Debt

May 25, 2017

Across Rhode Island, college graduates are headed to the wider world. But many of them will spend years paying down the student loans that financed their degrees. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says it’s time to give students a break, and bring down the cost of higher education.   

It’s the season of caps and gowns, platitudes and milestones. Families gather round as graduates hoist diplomas for the camera.

This year’s crop of grads can look forward to a better job market than the one their recession-wracked siblings rode home to the family couch just a few years back. Still, anxiety ripples through academia these days :  political correctness run amok, campus sexual assaults, education corrupted by the big money baggage of college sports, the increasing reliance on part-time professors.

None of these ills are as disturbing as the soaring cost of a college degree, that ticket to the middle class.

Rhode Island students among the nation’s hardest hit when it comes to paying for college and the pile of debt too many face as they get their degrees. In the decade since 2007, tuition at the state’s two four-year public colleges, the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College, has jumped by 57 percent, according to the New England Board of Higher Education.

Our state’s students graduate with an average of about $33,000 in debt, ranking the Ocean State the fifth highest among the 50 states in this dubious measure. Massachusetts students rank close behind at an average of $32,000. It’s scant solace that graduates in our New England neighbor states of New Hampshire and Connecticut have even higher levels.

Just about every politician  – including President Donald Trump during his campaign—decries student debt, but no one does  much about it. Trump’s new budget calls for getting rid of a major student loan forgiveness program that helps those who enter government service or work for non-profits, where salaries are generally lower than the private sector.

Closer to home, the General Assembly has so far been reluctant to adopt a public university free tuition plan proposed by Gov. Gina Raimondo that’s designed to cut student debt. Raimondo’s proposal   is structured to help students who complete two years of school, study full-time and are in good academic standing. It would be open to URI, RIC and Community College of Rhode Island students. It’s projected to cost about $30 million annually when it fully goes into effect, a mere drip in a state budget of more than $9 billion.

Some of the support behind Raimondo’s initiative has been diluted by the recently-discovered state deficit of about $100 million for the state financial year that begins in July. Yet, too much of the early criticism of Raimondo was from the same chorus of jeers that last year greeted then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders nationwide free public college plan.

Rhode Island Republicans have labeled the governor’s plan a taxpayer giveaway. Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, Raimondo’s Republican opponent in 2014, has asked why taxpayers should pick up the tab for public college students but not those at private colleges.

Investments in higher education are one of the best a society can make. The unemployment rate for college graduates is less than three percent, compared to more than five percent for high school grads and nearly 8 percent for those who lack a high school diploma, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Another strong argument is that educated citizens forge a better civic culture. It’s harder for politicians to sell snake oil to those who understand history and have a rudimentary knowledge of government.

Until recently, government support for colleges and universities wasn’t controversial. As far back as the Civil War, the federal government, in legislation to support land-grant state universities, signaled that public higher education was a national priority. The post-World War II G.I. bill financed education for returning veterans. The result: a healthy middle-class. In the 1960s, the federal government provided even more money for state schools. And Rhode Island’s late U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell authored the Pell Grant college aid program.

It’s time to go back to the future.  Investments in public colleges have a proven track record. Colleges  create an educated workforce, which lasts much longer than the latest fad of handing out business  tax incentives.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org