The other day I came across a news release from my alma mater the University of Southern Maine: “USM hails turnaround,” was the headline, “Admissions numbers substantially up and budget balanced for first time in years.” Classes are full, and the university is in the black. Officials were upbeat; for the first time since the Great Recession the university is making money.
USM was hit hard back in 2008. There were cuts, layoffs, changes in leadership. Officials threw countless levers in search of something capable of putting things back on track, of making ends meet. Now they finally have good news: “The number of high achieving high school graduates attending USM this fall is soaring. ‘Last year at this time 16 admitted students who were awarded merit scholarships sent us a deposit,’” a school official said. “’This year that number is 216, and we expect the numbers to climb.’” Things are looking up.
I studied at USM a decade ago, graduated in December of 2007 in the calm before the financial firestorm. Those were flush days for the university, before a lot of tough decisions and belt-tightening.
Today in-state USM students pay $253 per undergraduate credit. That’s not much different than when I was there. Out-of-state tuition, meanwhile, costs $665 per credit. One year of classes and fees costs $8,920 per year for in-state students, while out-of-states pay $21,280.
An hour away, meanwhile, at University of New Hampshire, an in-state student pays $600 per credit hour. A year of tuition costs $14,410, plus an additional $1,607 in fees. Over four years those numbers add up, and the $60,000 price tag for UNH doesn’t include food or a place to sleep. College today is full of opportunity, including for students to saddle themselves with significant financial baggage barely into adulthood.
It wasn’t always this way. The prosperity of the American Century wasn’t financed by 18-year-olds; it was fueled by public investment. In the wake of World War Two former soldiers swarmed university campuses backed by G.I. Bill dollars. A generation later their children attended low-cost state universities, another gift of government dollars. These two generations—the Greatest and the Boomers—built success out of this community investment. They prospered, and America prospered. They grew in tandem, gains forged in the fires of collective investment in higher education. We were a nation of government-funded students and state-sponsored graduates, two parallel rails that fostered America’s transition from industrial nation to an economy interlaced with technology. Today forms of commerce unimaginable in the post-World War Two years are commonplace, built by this army of first financial aid recipients. Complex derivative industries now sustain us, and the grandchildren of people born before telephones reached a majority of households are finding jobs as ap developers for smartphone companies. Such is the growth in an educated society.
But those opportunities are becoming harder and harder to afford. Over the past 50 years education has changed. The opportunities have changed. Even as the necessity of a college degree has increased, support for obtaining one has dwindled. Political pressure has forced entities built on public investment to operate more like businesses, to focus on growing income streams rather education opportunities. School budgets once covered by government have been cut while the portion left for students to bear has ballooned. The task of educating, a responsibility once felt by all of us, has been privatized, individualized and handed off to the kids. Education has transformed into something you buy, and it’s no longer affordable.
How did this happen? How did investment in a strong workforce, with the stability and prosperity that it brings, become the responsibility of 19 and 20-year-olds? How did we so erode our public support of higher education that the costs now land on the shoulders of children?
Perhaps it is tied to the modern narrative around education. The story of school was once that of a tide that lifted all boats: No one lost by investing in education. Gains might be unevenly distributed, but society as a whole saw tremendous advancements as a result of rising standards. Better education meant better jobs, more wealth and general upward mobility. The trajectory was one of growth. Investment in education was a building block in creating middle class communities, an investment in a collective future, and a brighter one.
Today, however, that storyline is gone, replaced by a simpler tale. Today we are told education exists for the individual. It is a personal investment with personal rewards: the chance for more money and a better job. From a societal level there is little incentive to see others educated, as only the individual sees the benefits. Taxpayers, meanwhile, bear the expense. Society is saddled with the cost. For individuals college is an investment; for the rest of us it is an expense.
Such a shallow view of our society, history and economy. Education, like economics, is not a zero-sum game; with investment, the pie grows. There is no finite number of slices. Inventions like the internet and the iPhone revolutionize entire sectors, creating new opportunities and derivative markets that spill their way down the economic food chain. Exploding technologies may be built by engineers and computer programmers, but they create opportunities for accountants and janitors, lawyers and food service workers, CEOs and parking lot attendants. Everyone benefits. Education is no simple rising tide; it is a wave, a tsunami, a tremendous force for change.
We knew this, and for years we watched it work. For generations. The result was the American Century, a middle class revolution built on public investment in knowledge, creativity and growth. America led the world, leadership funded by all of us.
We could get back there, but not by ignoring the cost. We must spend wisely and choose which bills to make our own. Education is one that belongs to all of us.
This column appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.