Time to stop throwing sand in the sandbox: higher education and politics

Ever seen kids throw sand at each other in the sandbox? It’s usually over a toy or some other valuable that in reality means little to nothing. But they just sit there and throw things at each other and cry. I liken this act to Congress. Nowadays, no one seems to want to compromise or share the toy in the sandbox. They just want to throw sand until one side gives up.

Well, that sand is hitting students, not the politicians, and the sand is turning into mud. We’ll start by addressing this low blow.

Only one out of 10 of the country’s lowest income students earn a bachelor’s degree by the age of 24, compared to three out of four of the wealthiest students, according to information from a New America Foundation panel Thursday.

Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream is the title of a book released by Cornell University political scientist Suzanne Mettler, who argues that the crisis in higher education is “fundamentally a result of political failure.”

Mettler, a fellow at the Century Foundation’s sponsored panel on this issue in higher education, places blame on political polarization and plutocracy for the current state of education.

“What I began to recognize is that our current political circumstances are a disastrous combination with the demands of maintaining public policies. You can see real variance over time with the capacity of the political system to do that kind of policy maintenance. As recently as the late 1980s early 1990s, we had a more conducive combination between our political system and that task than presently because of both the rise of polarization and what I’m calling plutocracy, or plutocratic government.”

Mettler argues that Democrats and Republicans have been increasingly unwilling to cross the aisle than in the past. She accounts part of this to the decline of moderates in the Republican Party and the greater homogeneity in voting patterns across issues in each party, both of which lead to stalemate.

“That indicates why we haven’t had major new solutions to problems in higher education if we’re not even agreeing on the small issues. We’re not even finding the political space in which to negotiate and deal with detailed, knotty kinds of issues that have to do with unintended consequences of policy. It’s not surprising.”

They’re just throwing sand.

Even worse than that, they’re missing each other and hitting students attempting to reach the heights of higher education, a merit which has been seen across the board as an expectation in the workforce.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, 18-year-old graduates are a “shrinking demographic,” representing only 24 percent of the U.S. population today, and 21 percent by 2050.

And for the students that do try to make it? Their outcomes are just as bad, according to Mettler.

“There are other students at the other end of the spectrum for whom they go to college, take on student loan debt, and either don’t graduate, or get a degree that is not worthwhile, and so they can really end up worse off than if they’d never gone to college in the first place.”

Beyond all the debt numbers, which I could throw at you (see these statistics in the full video!), two of Mettler’s points stand out. States now devote 26 percent less per student on higher education than they did decades ago, and tuition has increased about 113 percent in an attempt for colleges and universities to make up the difference. Mettler calls on holding state governments and non-profit private universities accountable for their spending in this regard.

Why does this matter for student free speech? To do as Mettler says, to “reinvigorate democracy, to expand who’s involved in American civic life,” students should get a college degree. Higher education should give students the opportunity to specialize in the formation of new ideas and politics. At the end of the day, higher education should be an avenue to continue learning in order to inspire and engage future leaders in the issues of today.

Mettler found in another one of her books, Soldiers to Citizens: The G.I. Bill and the Making of the Greatest Generation, that students who did got their college degree during the GI bill were more active in politics and civic organizations than others. She argues that like in the time of the GI bill, political involvement allows the U.S. to live up to its ideals more fully.

Unfortunately, today’s political landscape and changing economic realities in higher education adjust student opportunity more than ever before.

Polarization as Mettler sees it makes influence easier for interest groups because the effort is streamlined straight to leadership who directs their members. She says Republicans and Democrats in the House fall into this trap. With this polarization of parties, students and Americans in general have become increasingly disengaged.

Others involved in this delightfully deep conversation on the federal government are Robert Shireman, the executive director for California Competes and the former U.S. deputy director undersecretary of education, and Frances E. Lee, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland.

They boil down some of the arguments a little more comprehensively to show the relation to higher education. Lee said that this last Congress has been the least progressive, barely acted on any nonpartisan issue and changed the parties to be more ideologically cohesive and homogeneous internally. Lee discussed the media’s coverage of party ideology but told the panel audience that there is another, more pressing trend to consider:

“Often overlooked in the focus on party ideology is another factor that affects our contemporary politics and that’s its ferociousness party competitiveness. The closeness of today’s party competition is not normal in American politics.”

This change to ferocity among today’s parties results in distinct “confrontational politics.” In other words, both parties refuse to compromise because highlighting their differences makes a better case for a change in power. Because in all reality, polarization benefits party aims. If there are no dividing issues, why change the government and give the opposing party the majority?

Shireman argues that this change has “felt more and more like we’re walking into a buzz saw where the folks on the other side of the aisle are just required to slash and burn and not have an actual discussion.”

The American public, he says, gets very left out of discussions in the tension of engagement through broad ideas and the details of policy reform. According to Mettler, lawmakers responded to young people when young people were more active in politics, not only voting but an array of political activities. This was clear in the engagement of elections in 2004-2006 and 2008 when Pell grants were increased, students had a louder voice, and elected officials were more responsive because of broader civic engagement.

Lee notes that party competition causes people to pay less attention, become less serious about politics and the details, and see policy proposals as unreal because of the transition to campaign speak instead of acts of governance.

Holding institutions accountable for funding, increasing Pell grant offerings and the continual work by the policy community to find and offer solutions at the right “window” are what this panel argues can make all the difference.

Recent news from this week shows they may be right. It also shows that many are looking for more creative solutions to a complicated issue.

Solutions to the problems of higher education despite polarization:

Use your noodle? (little brain break for making it this far down in the post)


According to the Chronicle for Higher Education, Noodle is “attempting to become the Google and Amazon for education by aggregating education options from around the world into one search-and-recommendation engine,” and other similar education providers online focus on short-term learning for prospective job opportunities. The focus here is continuous learning over full-time education.

Too much? A New Jersey assemblywoman introduced 20 bills aimed at cutting college costs and making them more accountable for student outcomes. It sounds vaguely familiar…

However, here are some of the takeaways from Assemblywoman Celeste M. Riley and the folks reporting at the Chronicle for Higher Education:

– distribute state appropriations to public colleges

– standardize course-numbering for public colleges statewide

– bar colleges from requiring campus meal plans

– close public colleges with 50 percent or lower six-year graduation rates

– require a state auditor to determine whether fees students pay actually benefit them

– THE BIGGIE (and maybe not so much a goodie): freeze tuition and fees for all nine semesters for all incoming students at both public and private colleges in the state

A Student Debt and Federal Loan Policy Senate hearing, which examined reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, offered suggestions of ways to improve federal student aid Thursday. NPR discussed this issue with Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, before the hearing, and found that the “student loan bubble” and the for-profit colleges that go after low-income students who default their debt, are the main issues to be dealt with.

Ways to improve aid reported in the Chronicle for Higher Education suggested: simplify the repayment plan, give more information and borrowing options, and counseling to get through the process (let’s hope that includes mental as well for the amount of debt some students rank up…)

THE BEST PART: Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top dog Republican on the committee, said that college is more affordable than many students think.

His answer: “Borrow wisely.” He mentioned statistics from the New York Federal Reserve Bank that were noted in the Chronicle for Higher Education, “40 percent of borrowers had student-loan debt of less than $10,000 while less than 4 percent had debt of more than $100,000.”

An expansion of this study to be more comprehensive and revealing all the data would inform the public better of the state of student loans. A large number of students are unaccounted for because they are still in school or paid off their balance before the 2011 quarter the data addresses. This data really brings more questions to mind than answers because each year students can increase their debt and the time it takes to pay off that debt, but not be accountable for it (in data) until their graduation.

Even looking at the numbers, 45 percent have between $10,000 and $50,000 worth of student loans. The higher the age, the higher the average student loan balance, which logically fits in with interest in repayment post-graduation and other costs in entering the workforce. The HuffPost reported on this widening gap between students who take out student loans and those who do not, entering into the frustration of students who have been paying off their debt for years, like this student who has been working to pay of debt as an attorney since 2005.

“I have more education and more degrees than my father, as does she than her parents, and yet our parents are better off than we are. What’s wrong with this picture?” Gregory Zbylut said to the HuffPost.

Others weighed in on this issue in The Oregonian. See their responses here. Also, remember back in 2010 when Obama said that he would forgive student loans after 20 years? Here are the proposals that have been established since then in government, thanks to ABC’s News10.

Lack of affordability in higher education will only bog down the workforce and maintain debt among students, keeping them from political involvement.

Some students attempted to make the transition into civic involvement and came up a bit short.

The Topeka Kansas City Journal reported that Kansas students from Bucklin High School lobbied for changes in public education, including a sex education course, physical education in response to obesity, bullying and the inadequate representation of their small town. Despite whether or not these issues are addressed in any mainstream way, the House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence appreciates their concern.

“So many of decisions made in the Capitol affect them,” he said. “We need to hear their voices.”

If only this could happen on a mass scale in the way Mettler wants it to, then students would be increasingly involved in public discourse in a way that would affect their own education and future. But it’s not enough that student voices are heard. Student voices need to be integrated into public discourse and discussion, so that future leaders are educated voters and active participants in society.

Income inequality in high school also reflects the potential that students can have when given the resources and opportunity.  Michigan Live tracked this issue last week with a story on “hard lessons” with good results for low-income students.

After a merger of Albion and Marshall high schools, a low-scoring and a high-scoring school on merit exams, students who scored lower in one school had to meet the higher expectations in the other school. Homework, respect, resources, and social pressures may change the direction of these newly adjusting low-income students facing an alternate economic reality. Richard Kahlenberg, of the Century Foundation in New York has written on economic integration, and told MLive:

“Higher-income schools tend to have college-going expectations and cultures, highly active parental groups, and strong teachers compared to high-poverty schools. While there is often an initial period of adjustment for low-income students. The long-run benefits are undeniable.”

Hopefully the payoff is intelligent individuals who will disconnect from party loyalties and engage, voicing the issues of higher education and civic engagement in a politically polarized world. Maybe they’ll be the ones to stop throwing sand in the sandbox.


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