We have a dream but we we won't be paying for it

September 29, 2000

US presidential candidates promise to reduce college costs, but show me the money, says Stanley Aronowitz

The 2000 US presidential elections mark a turning point in national political discussion because the ideal of universal access to higher education is virtually consensual. With more than 15 million students attending an institution of higher education and more than a third of the population aged between 25 and 29 with some kind of degree, financial and access issues have made their way into the front line of US politics.

Politicians of both the Democratic and Republican parties listen when parents complain of the cost of higher education and students find themselves accumulating tens of thousands of dollars of debt. But there are severe limits, political and constitutional, to how much the president or congress can do to alleviate their plight.

Federal aid to education has never been popular among conservatives, who insist that it is the business of the states. They recoil at the prospect of federal oversight that accompanies the grants, especially policies of affirmative action, only partially dismantled by recent legislation, and restrictions on their freedom to use the money as political patronage.

US law reserves to the states the chief responsibility for delivering education. With private schools enrolling some 30 per cent of students, many perceive that the federal government's role should be limited to making grants to individual students and their families.

No matter which candidate reaches the Oval Office, prospects for more social spending remain dim. Whatever gains are made in support for higher education are likely to be symbolic. But in the era of financial austerity in public goods, symbols mean a great deal. Republican candidate George W. Bush has promised to cut taxes by a trillion dollars and rebuild America's weapons arsenal, including defences against nuclear weapons. Democrat candidate Vice-President Al Gore has vowed to make paying off the debt his first priority. Mr Gore has promised to seek a $500 (Pounds 345) increase in the Pell grant programme that provides $3,000 a year to students on the basis of need. Bush would raise the amount by $1,000 provided the student takes requisite maths and science in high school.

But the most important proposals by both candidates allow a "tuition tax credit" (Mr Gore would allow $2,800) or a tax deduction up to $10,000 a year for families earning less than $120,000. Critics are sceptical because they contend it would not expand opportunities for children of poor parents who, if they earn $20,000 or less, pay almost no income taxes. They argue that the Gore-Bush plans to offer tax benefits are directed at the middle class: that is, anyone who earns more than $40,000 a year.

Each candidate in his own way is targeting the voters, who in US elections include very few poor people. When confronted with this criticism, the Gore campaign says it wants to offer scholarships of $2,500 to new students who will teach in disadvantaged communities for four years after graduating from college. Such grants would not apply to students who merely wanted a good general education but could not afford the price. The Democrats go a step beyond student financial aid schemes. As a fervent advocate of a high-tech economy, Mr Gore would raise grants to universities for science and technology research from $1.4 billion to $4 billion a year.

However, the significance of higher education is not defined by the modesty of the campaigns' financial features. Far more important is that all three presidential debates will be held on university campuses. Mr Gore makes it a point to deliver many of his major speeches to university audiences; when he spoke in mid-September to his vital black constituents, it was via Howard University, one of the leading black institutions. With a frequency unknown in previous elections, Mr Gore has projected the goal of providing for all young people the chance to attend a college or university, an aspiration whose symbolic significance far outweighs the material means provided in his platform for its realisation.

Educators are delighted that higher education is finally getting its due notice. Given the rising economic and cultural significance of a post-secondary degree, it would not be surprising to see higher learning in the US emerge as a major social and political issue in the next decade. But with the costs of university fees soaring far above the inflation rate and the widespread perception that despite the surfeit of low-wage and contingent jobs, a secure career remains an elusive objective, it will take more than pious statements and modest financial aid to match voters' growing demand for substantial relief.

Neither major party candidate has squarely faced the magnitude of the need or the far-reaching measures required to meet it. Until then, it seems likely that, like the weather, everybody will continue to talk about higher education but the federal government will measure solutions through an eye-dropper.

Stanley Aronowitz is professor of sociology, City University of New York.

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