THE BLOG

Our Children Are Our Future? Or Are They...

04/03/2015 06:04 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2015

An "old school" protest on Capitol Hill by American students took place to protect against proposed cuts by House Republicans to Pell Grants that help our children afford college. I use the phrase "our children" because it is a well-worn phrase "our children are our future." House Republicans appear to believe they are not "our children," but your children; and you had better figure out how to get them educated, because they are your problem, not our future. This is carrying the case for individualism to an absurd level.

In an age of rising inequality, it is essential for the nation's survival that we restore a sense of national purpose and need people in government committed to achieving national goals and priorities. The rest of the world fully understands that a nation going forward, in this century, must have a highly educated population; whether it is Brazil, China, India, Korea, Japan, Germany or France. They all remain committed to sustaining or increasing their investment in the education of their children; it is no longer a choice or luxury in a technologically sophisticated global economy.

Historically, this same commitment has not been partisan in the United States; as it is so self-evidently a national priority necessary for the economic, political and military survival of America. And, in fact, major commitments to this cause have originated under Republican presidents and Congresses.

The first was the passage of the Morrill Act in the midst of the Civil War in 1863 by Republican President Abraham Lincoln and a Republican House and Senate. That Act, which established our great land grant universities among them MIT, the University of California -- Berkeley, the University of Wisconsin -- Madison and Penn State, was passed while the nation faced its gravest challenge to survival and the federal deficit and national debt skyrocketed to record levels to meet the gravity of the crisis of the Civil War.

Similarly, in 1958 to meet the challenges of expanding America's production of scientists and engineers in response to the Soviet Union's Sputnik satellite, the federal government launched the student loan program as the National Defense Education Act. The maximum loan a student could take out was $1,000 a year, and $5,000 in a lifetime. That Act, would make college accessible to sons and daughters of the World War II Vets who had benefited from the GI bill that brought a new class of students to America's colleges. It was passed under Republican Dwight Eisenhower.

The tuition for the 1957-1958 school year at Harvard was $1,000. So, the loan amount guaranteed that any student could afford to choose Harvard. Adjusting for inflation, that tuition amount would be $10,152 today. The maximum, subsidized interest rate direct student loan amount now is $7,500 a year. And, the tuition to Harvard now stands at $43,938.

The Pell Grant program, the subject of the House Republicans' wrath, helps low income students afford college through scholarship rather than debt. Low-income families lack liquidity, and find it hard to qualify for loans or to find the money to sustain supporting a college age student.

In 1965, the maximum Pell Grant was $1,000. Tuition to Harvard that year was $1,760. Tuition to the University of Wisconsin for out-of-state students was $1,050, but $325 for in-state students. Adjusting for inflation, the $1,000 Pell Grant today would be $7,451; but, it is $5,370 for the current school year.

So, in 1965, a student could either work thirteen 20-hour part-time weeks at the federal minimum wage or qualify for a Pell Grant to afford attending their top in-state public university. That was because of the level of investment from state and federal dollars in higher education, underwriting the costs of high quality education; making it accessible. Current tuition for in-state students at the University of Wisconsin is $10,410 because we have cut that investment.

Breaking with America's past, the new Republican policy amounts to both class warfare -- since tuition hikes are not a threat to the one percent; but also a twisted inter-generational fight, pitting lower taxes and higher consumption for the older upper middle class of today against our children. But, the latter math is simply wrong minded. The earnings and productivity of our children is what will provide the income stream to support the Social Security and Medicare of the current tax paying older adults.

Saving and investing are not the same things. In this case, "saving" our children from a federal debt increase to cut our investment in their future earnings is not going to "save" anyone.