As President Joe Biden announces $10-20,000 in student loan forgiveness in response to growing demands from activists and citizens, we must examine how we got here. Simply looking at generational differences speaks to the enormity of this issue. I graduated from the University of Michigan in 2015 and paid nearly six times the tuition that my father paid at Michigan State University in 1971, after adjustment for inflation. That’s a 465% increase in tuition across our generations at public universities in Michigan over 50 years. Most have seen the staggering statistics: 46 million Americans struggle with student loan debt and student debt totals amount to nearly $1.8 trillion. How the hell did this happen?
This story is not about personal failure. It is not about people’s unwillingness to pay off their debts, take responsibility or work hard. It’s about our values and our tax dollars — or lack thereof — in support of higher education. The government has been decreasing direct funding for public colleges and universities, and instead shifting funding to individuals via student loans; this has created the debt balloon and made higher education increasingly inequitable. It’s past time for the United States to shift course. We must cancel the debt we created and pass the College for All act, introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., to adequately fund higher education for everyone. Budgets are moral documents and ours should reflect America’s values of education.
Older generations sometimes recount their hard work during college as reason to blame younger generations for not working as hard. But as tuition continues to rise astronomically, the minimum wage remains stagnant. The Education Data Initiative estimates that the average cost of a four-year higher education will cost a student $35,551 per year. If a student works a full-time job at the federal minimum wage, they will make $15,080 per year, covering not even half of the average tuition. The issue is not about working hard. Students have absolutely no choice but to take out massive student loans to cover costs.
So, how did tuition manage to skyrocket as wages stagnated? It’s actually quite simple. The government shifted from funding public universities directly to putting the financial responsibility onto students, transferring risk from institutions onto individuals. From 2003 to 2017, the state of Michigan cut funding to public universities by 30%, or $262 million. The University of Michigan reports that in 1960, 78% of their general fund budget came from state funding, compared to 13% of their current budget in 2022. Peter Hinrichs from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland reports that public universities’ revenue from state and local governments has generally fallen from 1987 to 2013, and in 2013, it fell to its lowest rate ever.
Additionally, the Pew Institute reports that a mere 2% of our federal budget is spent on higher education when excluding student loans. While direct funding decreased, the federal government embraced student loans, even funding private institutions at a higher rate than public institutions. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that university revenues from federal funding, per full-time-equivalent (FTE) student in 2019, amounts to $8,000 for private nonprofit institutions and only $5,230 per FTE student for public institutions. Furthermore, the Education Data Initiative finds that the average student loan debt upon graduation has quadrupled from 1970 to 2021, adjusted for inflation. The government’s decreased direct funding to public institutions, along with its increased funding of student loans, shifted risk onto the American people and created the debt trap that many find themselves in.
Black borrowers are especially burdened by this structure, as student debt has increased the Black-white wealth gap and led to the growth of predatory for-profit colleges. Dorothy Brown, a law professor at Emory University’s School of Law, examines these disparities, noting that while white Americans’ student loan debt diminishes over time, Black Americans’ student loan debt rises. This is due to many factors, including inherited wealth that white students use to pay off their tuition costs, discriminatory college admissions processes, job and wage discrimination and the type of schools that students attend. Brown reports that wealthy colleges give out more financial aid to students and admit white students at high rates, while a disproportionate number of Black and Latino students attend for-profit colleges that give out little financial aid. Many for-profit colleges are also predatory, targeting students of color and saddling them with unbearable debt — leaving many without quality degree or even a diploma.
Our government’s disinvestment in higher education has encouraged an inequitable system that caters to white and wealthy Americans, while excluding students of color and those who are low-income. The only way to shift the current system is to dedicate funds to bolster public institutions and increase access. The government created this problem, and now it must solve it.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Michigan Reconnect program is an incredible start to solving these issues, covering community college tuition and fees for Michigan residents over 25, but we must do more. The University of Michigan’s Go Blue Guarantee, HAIL scholarship and Michigan State’s Spartan Advantage Program are aimed at expanding access to higher education; however, MSU’s program in particular has stringent eligibility requirements that are difficult to understand. Wayne State University’s Heart of Detroit Tuition pledge is also a commendable program, yet only covers Detroit residents or students graduating from Detroit schools after 2020. States and public universities are clearly recognizing the need and benefits of funding higher education, although the federal government is the only entity that has the money to truly fund higher education for all.Michigan has some of the highest quality public universities in the country, and they should cater to and uplift their surrounding communities. A proposal like Sanders and Jayapal’s College for All bill is the only way forward in shifting our values and prioritizing higher education. This legislation would make community college free for all Americans and make public universities and private nonprofits serving specific populations (HBCUs, Tribal colleges, etc.) free for students from families with incomes of less than $125,000. The federal government would cover 75% of the cost of eliminating tuition and fees, with individual states responsible for the remaining 25%. The legislation goes further, recognizing states’ funding challenges during economic recessions and notes that the federal government will increase its share to 90% during these times. Whether you are a fan of this proposal or want to debate the specifics, there is no logical argument to defend the current abysmal federal funding to public universities and continuously declining state and local funding. Like our K-12 system, our tax dollars should go toward directly funding public higher education institutions for all. We cannot continue on the path of affordable higher education for the wealthy and white and debilitating debt for everyone else.
Lisa Tencer is a University of Michigan alum and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.