In the first presidential debate of the general election cycle, the candidates' discussion of the American education system was a welcome departure from the usual haggling over the best way to get the economy moving again. In reality, addressing the rising cost of a college education in America is one of the ways we can pursue economic strength in the long run. If President Obama and Governor Romney are serious about creating lasting economic stability, they should continue talking about how to reform education to make it more profitable for all.
According to The New York Times, the cost of a college education has multiplied by a factor of five and a half since 1985, whereas the prices of regular consumer goods have roughly doubled. Therefore, five-figure annual tuition costs today are a result of more than just inflation. US News & World Report finds that among public schools, which educate three-quarters of college students in America today, the number one cause of rising tuition is a reduction in state subsidies.
Why do state governments cut education funding? When budgets are squeezed, public universities are often the first programs to get the axe, because they have the ability to raise revenue on their own, through tuition hikes. This is a luxury that other programs such as Medicaid do not possess. Finances have pressured states more and more recently for a variety of reasons, but an important one is public-sector pensions. With the rising number of baby-boomers hitting retirement, pension payouts go up, and funding for state schools goes down. It is up to public universities to make up for the budget shortfall with tuition increases.
A heavy tuition burden, especially at public schools, means that many students who would otherwise attend college cannot because of affordability. State governments have adopted the wrong attitude toward budget distribution. In America we spend far more money helping out the old than the young. Forty-one percent of the federal FY 2011 budget went to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, while education at all levels netted only 2 percent.
It is important to care for our seniors as well as our students, but the distribution of spending should be more equal. Moreover, education is not just another program to spend money on; it is an investment in the future. A better-educated population earns a higher annual income and will be able to save more for retirement, thus reducing dependency on government programs for seniors. Furthermore, an educated population will acquire more jobs that emphasize skilled labor, thus increasing overall job satisfaction and encouraging people to work longer. It's impossible for a government to pay for everything, of course, but the long-term benefits of spending money on education should make it one of our top priorities.
For private schools such as Swarthmore, rising tuition stems from different causes. In its examination of education costs, US News & World Report found that private schools must compete with one another for the top prospective students and professors: students by providing superior facilities and services, and professors by providing the best benefit packages and resources to follow academic pursuits. A school which does not play this competition game will fall behind.
Some rising education costs among both public and private schools have been attributed to increased spending on other services, such as psychological counseling. In addition, administrative and maintenance costs have gone up as well, for various reasons. These expenses, coupled with the aforementioned competition for students and professors, would be difficult to defray by any action Swarthmore can take as an institution.
However, slowing the growth of public and private tuition in the long run is not impossible, but it requires a large-scale solution: increasing state and federal funding for public universities. For obvious reasons, this will help public schools. But it will help private schools as well, because a better-educated workforce includes better-educated professors. If the world has more professors with terminal degrees in their respective fields, the type of professor Swarthmore and other top private schools seek, then competition for these elite educators may not be quite so intense.
An investment in education helps everyone, and it is high time political dialogue shifted in that direction.