Essay: Is Affordable Higher Education a Moral Imperative for the State?

Apr 1, 2013

Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
The question of the state’s obligation to provide affordable public higher education is easy to shove aside these days, as our disgraced and dysfunctional state government grapples with more fundamental issues of fiscal survival. Truth be told, it may be a moot point.

Let’s go back one generation.

Tuition, room and board at the University of Illinois in 1981 was $3,440. It is now more than $29,000, including books, supplies and miscellaneous costs such as transportation. That is a staggering increase by any definition, albeit one not out of line with higher education costs across the country. But for the purposes of this discussion, it is essential to look at another number.

The median household income in Illinois in 1981 was $29,463. It is now $53,234. If the median household income in Illinois had risen as fast and as much as the U of I’s in-state tuition, it would be almost $250,000. (Our pension-funding worries would be over, as Illinois would be wealthier than the wealthiest nation on Earth!) 

Or, to look at it another way, tuition, room and board one generation ago represented slightly more than 10 percent of the state’s median household income. Today, it represents more than 50 percent.

It would appear that the affordability ship sailed long ago.

And those who would point to private-school price tags hovering around $60,000 — Northwestern is $57,108; University of Chicago is $61,390 — and suggest state schools remain a bargain are missing the point entirely.

The price of higher education, long a crucial rung on the ladder of opportunity, has risen so dramatically in our generation that it can hardly be considered an affordable option. This new, crippling cost of economic advancement, if not checked, will thin our pool of future leaders, weaken our economy and further widen the chasm between rich and poor, with no middle in between.

At a time when political discussion is often laced with vitriolic anger, those who might suggest that state-supported higher education is expendable, a government entitlement doled out to help people who should help themselves, fail to grasp that the real beneficiaries are all of us, unless slipping into global mediocrity seems like a viable option.

Thomas J. Lee has spent his career grappling with big issues. Whether as a political journalist, a speechwriter for Fortune 100 executives or a sought-after executive leadership consultant, he’s seen the power of empowerment. 

“The real question isn’t whether we have a moral obligation to make a high-quality liberal-arts education available to as many people who can obtain it,” he says. “The real question is whether we should seize the tremendous benefits of educating the next generation, or instead suffer the consequences of not educating the next generation.” 

Madeleine Doubek, chief executive officer of Reboot Illinois, a reform website, email and social media effort dedicated to engaging Illinoisans in the state’s challenges, agrees with Lee.

“The state could price its citizens out of the higher education market by raising prices and providing less financial aid. And that is exactly where we’ve been heading for the past several years,” says Doubek, a graduate of Eastern Illinois University. “That results in more young adult college graduates starting careers with back-breaking debt. More and more of them must move back in with their parents to barely survive. And fewer likely will seek a higher education. Is that really the future we want for our children and grandchildren? Is that really the community we want?”

Officials in Michigan came to the same conclusion several years ago after commissioning a study on the relationship between higher education and economic growth. They concluded that investing in higher education was essential to raising the standard of living for residents and, therefore, for strengthening the state’s economy.

“Each year of college attainment enables an individual to increase annual earnings by an average of 10 percent,” the study found, citing data from the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics. “Furthermore, the gap in earnings between persons with a high school diploma or less compared with those with an associate’s, bachelor’s or advanced degree has been widening since 1975. This gap in earnings has grown, even as the supply of college-educated workers has risen.”

The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators took it one step further, using U.S. Census Bureau data to extrapolate the direct benefit, in terms of taxable income, of a college-educated worker. The resulting article, The Financial Value of a Higher Education, found that the added value of a college degree versus a high school degree, over the course of the average lifespan, was $1.2 million.

“Compared with the average out-of-pocket costs of a college education, this represents a return on investment in excess of 27 percent,” according to a summary of the report. “The added revenue also corresponds to an additional $133,000 in cumulative federal income tax revenue. Accordingly, it would be financially worthwhile for the federal government to replace loans with grants in the financial aid packages of low-income students if this yielded at least a 32 percent increase in the number of low-income students graduating with bachelor’s degrees.”

Viewed in that light, Illinois’ declining investment in public universities — over the past 15 years, state aid for public universities has declined 27.6 percent when adjusted for inflation, according to a recent report in the northwest suburban Daily Herald — is actually costing the state money. Even as tuition is rising, according to the Herald, the state’s most basic need-based scholarship program, the Monetary Award Program (MAP), has been cut to the point that approximately three-fourths of eligible students’ needs go unmet.

Illinois’ Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, quoted in the Daily Herald, said this aid shortfall is wasteful.

“Some students start school and are academically able to continue but are financially not able to continue,” Simon says. “That’s a real waste of resources for both the students and the state.”

Doubek says the state, by falling short in this area, is short-changing our future.

“Moving toward an unaffordable higher education creates other negative ripple effects,” she says. “It will mean we have fewer citizens holding down good, high-paying Illinois jobs. This, in turn, means a weaker, less diverse Illinois economy. It also means less income tax revenue for Illinois. Before we know it, we’ve created a terribly vicious cycle that is difficult to escape.”

The future does not look particularly bright. According to a report by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, state-funded higher education is often targeted first, since it can raise its own revenue by raising tuition.

“Given the past state budget patterns of coping with fiscal deficits and avoiding tax increases … the projected shortfalls will lead to increased scrutiny of higher education in almost all states, and to curtailed spending for higher education in many states,” according to a summary of the report.

Still, as informative as numbers and reports can be, I’ve always found that the best examples are all around us. Illinois is filled with public university graduates who make contributions to our communities every day. Many of these people would likely have walked down different paths had it not been for the state universities they and their families could afford.

Chicago Tribune reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Ted Gregory is one of those people. Born in Chicago and raised in Morton Grove, he described his background as “working class/middle class,” and says he graduated high school with very little savings for college. He financed half his education at Eastern Illinois University with student loans, and private schools would have been out of the question. A self-described academic late bloomer, Gregory found Eastern was a place that opened his mind to any number of avenues of success. When he wandered into the school newspaper, he found the one he would walk down.

“Editors at the Eastern News threw me in the action immediately, and I loved the experience. I soon discovered that the News was one of only two student-run, daily newspapers at similarly sized public universities in the U.S. (The other is the Daily Mississippian at Ole Miss.) The Daily Eastern News was very lean and needy, which was why editors welcomed someone as raw as I was. The wonderful thing about Eastern was that it gave a kid like me, who had a very undistinguished history but sort of woke up and wanted to work hard in college, all the resources to make something of myself in my chosen field — at a very affordable price.”

Alex Rodriguez had a similar experience at Western Illinois University. The Pulitzer Prize winner and former Tribune reporter, now based in Pakistan for the Trib-owned Los Angeles Times, grew up in Chicago and suburban Streamwood. He remembers scanning college catalogues, looking with trepidation at their prices.

“I don’t remember a whole lot of schools that were on par with Western in terms of price. … I kind of zeroed in on WIU because of its affordability,” he says.

Like Gregory, Rodriguez found his calling not so much in the college classroom but in the office of the college newspaper.

“Attending college gave me the opportunity to work at the school newspaper and accumulate a batch of clips, which was and is still always key in any journalism job search,” he says.

Both Gregory and Rodriguez agree that funding state universities is an essential part of the state’s mission.

“I think one of the values of government in a democracy is the ideal of striving to level the playing field,” Rodriguez says. “Of course, in the U.S. and other democracies, that effort often falls very short. Nevertheless, it’s important to give families an affordable alternative to private colleges that are often more expensive.

“If a state fails to provide public higher education to its sons and daughters, I really believe it fails at one of its most fundamental missions,” Gregory says. “Affordable public higher education instills hope in, empowers and illuminates people from nearly all economic backgrounds. What more important responsibility can a state have than giving residents a shot at those opportunities? And, what are the consequences — to the state and to individuals — of failing to provide that opportunity to residents who otherwise might not get the shot?”

Still, I believe the most important benefit to public higher education is also the hardest to quantify. The deliberately sheltered, ivory-tower environment that is the typical major-university campus gives students the opportunity to construct their dreams and conjure ways to achieve them. Some, like pre-med students and engineers, follow specific curricula geared toward specific professions. Others follow less-defined liberal arts paths. It is easy, in tough times, to dismiss the latter group and their wandering intellectual curiosity as a luxury we can no longer afford.

But not everyone figures out their life plan by the time they finish high school. Higher education is certainly not for everyone. And a strong case can be made for beefing up our trade-school preparation, as well as supporting associate’s degrees for certain careers. Likewise, it is easy to find examples of people who squander the opportunities four-year colleges provide.

But we cannot lose sight of the fact that a good university is a place that lays the world of ideas at one’s feet. It is, at its best, a place that walks in step with the boundless energy of youth and says: Let me give you some ways to think critically about the world, and you just might figure out how to make something of yourself.

“The fact is,” Lee says, “that a good education isn’t so much a set of skills for practicing a trade or a profession but a set of principles and the discipline to apply them to understand and learn about the world around us, and to contribute to improving our society. With those principles and that discipline, we can remain the greatest civilization in history. Without those principles and that discipline, we will not. It’s pretty much that simple.” 

John Carpenter is a free-lance writer based in suburban Chicago.

Illinois Issues, April 2013