By Bob Hildreth
Recent polls show that Massachusetts residents have lost faith in their collegesand universities. This is disturbing news, since the only thing colleges and universities really can offer is faith: the belief that higher education will improve lives.
In a recent poll of Massachusetts voters conducted for the Hildreth Institute by Anderson Robbins Research more than three-quarters of those surveyed stated that colleges costs stand in the way of young people achieving the American dream. If there is one thing that Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals agree upon, it is that higher education costs too much. Considering how polarized our country has become, this broad consensus is remarkable and suggests that the government may call colleges to account very soon.
Voters are also in agreement about why colleges have been able to constantly raise their tuition: student debt. A majority of every demographic group in the poll believes that the loan-based financial aid system is broken, including 70% of voters under age 40. Colleges have received a large portion of the outstanding $1.6 trillion in student debt, money which has funded their tuition hikes. Yet a Harvard Kennedy School poll conducted recently by the Institute of Politics reveals that this strategy has reached its limits. When Millennials were asked who is most responsible for the rising amount of student debt in the U.S., 42 percent blamed colleges and universities. The poll finds that with a majority of college students now having debt, financial considerations influence most millennials when they consider whether or not to pursue college. The fact that cost matters in a world where prestige has long influenced college selection represents an enormous sea change.
It isn’t just that student debt is a burden, but that it is growing rapidly. Almost 90% of voters in the Hildreth Institute poll agreed that the fact that student debt has doubled since the early 2000s is a major problem. And nearly nine out of ten voters agree that student debt does lasting financial harm both to individuals and the economy as a whole, as it delays savings and investment.
These numbers are not just a wake-up call to colleges, but also to politicians. Voters expect their elected officials to do something about this growing problem. Yet solutions must involve structural change because the amounts of money involved are so large. In order for the Commonwealth to eliminate student debt at state colleges and universities, it will need to replace the funding with an equivalent amount of tax dollars. Major new state revenue is necessary in order to make our public higher ed system accessible and affordable to all.
Private institutions, on the other hand, can expect little if any help from taxpayers. The good news for them is that many can rely on healthy endowments. It is standard practice across many colleges to distribute 4% of their endowments each year to meet various needs, from financial aid to the maintenance of facilities. Raising this amount to just 5% or 6%, with the increase dedicated to scholarships, would allow these institutions to make significant progress toward the task of lowering the debt burden on students.
The words associated with American colleges and universities have historically been positive: upward mobility, arts and sciences, growth and maturity. Now, as a result of student debt, new words have surfaced: inequality, debt, and even bankruptcy. These words are incompatible with the goals of higher education and should shame us all.