October 17, 2008

Where's Higher Education?

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Last year, I wrote an article about the leading presidential contenders’ stance on issues of higher education. As a college student, these issues are of particular relevance to me as many students look forward to year of paying back 5-figure, even 6-figure student loans. While the economy is collapsing around us, I applaud moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS for asking this question as way to close the debates: “The U.S. spends more per capita than any other country on education. Yet, by every international measurement, in math and science competence, from kindergarten through the 12th grade, we trail most of the countries of the world. The implications of this are clearly obvious. Some even say it poses a threat to our national security. Do you feel that way and what do you intend to do about it?”

Framing it as an issue of national security and of relevance to the economy might put pressure on both the government and institutes of higher education across the country to reexamine rising costs to attend school. Obama was correct to link the decline of education in America to the decline of the economy because no country experiencing a financial downfall has ever been able to maintain its position on top of the world. Before the U.S., it was Britain. China seems like it’s doing pretty well right now and they have higher test scores. Perhaps it will emerge as the new dominant world power if the US can’t get it bearings straight.

To fuel innovation and creativity under a market economy, people must have access to the education that will allow them to develop their skills and critical thinking ability. Education is not the only factor that contributes to a nation’s economic success, the institutes governing the economy have a huge part on it. But in an increasingly globalized market, if the US wants to compete with other countries and to attract business, it needs to develop the skills of the labor force. McCain mentioned last night that the U.S. has the second highest corporate taxes in the world at 35 percent, while Ireland only has 11 percent (it is actually 12.5 percent). He asked: Where does business go? To the place where they have the least taxes. Well, this is only partly true. Companies go where they can find the skilled labor force. This is probably why we see more technological and financial services companies flocking to India and China, where there is a highly skilled labor force available for lower wages than American workers garner. China has the second lowest corporate tax rate, coming in at 25 percent. But we see that taxes are only one component businesses consider when they decide where to locate.

Beyond that, if the U.S. wants to develop that skilled labor force, it will need to increase access to education. Sen. Barack Obama is right to address the problems in education starting in early childhood. Similarly, Sen. John Mccain makes a strong appeal to show that education is the civil rights issue of the 21st century and it really is. Whether we like it not, children in lower-income areas (generally from minority backgrounds) are behind left behind. It does not benefit these kids to attend failing schools in their neighborhoods. While both candidates emphasized the importance of charter schools in creating competition for local schools to shape up, the state of our education system is in dire need of reform starting with the methods and criteria schools use to recruit and retain teachers. Education is an essential part of creating an informed democracy.

Ultimately, neither of the solutions the candidates suggested promised significant reform in reigning in the cost of higher education. Obama suggested that he would give college students a $4,400 every year they are in school in exchange for some form of community service. McCain said he wanted to make students loans more readily available. But neither of these solutions does anything to reign in the cost of attending schools. This year, 9 million people applied for financial aid, as opposed to 7.7 million last year. This is a 1.3 million increase in the number of applicants. Though the increase could be due the fact that more people have figured out how to apply for financial aid or that there are more people applying to college this year than in previous years, but it is still a significant jump in numbers.

Obama hammered away at recruiting more teachers in the sciences and math and the need for more researchers in these fields. McCain wanted to make loans more available. This year, I wrote an article on the Higher Education Opportunity Act that was signed into law this August. The main goal of the Act in regards to financial aid and tuition was to make lending practices more transparent and empower the college consumer by forcing colleges to be more upfront about their costs. The law also forces college to report increases in their tuition. If the government finds that the reason behind the institution’s increase as frivolous and unnecessary, the school will be added to a list of colleges with the highest cost increase. The goal of this action is to “shame” colleges into cutting their costs. Much disappointment surrounded the law as it did not fundamentally change the maze that is the financial aid application or restructure the cost of college.

Tell me how anyone carrying over $40,000 in debt accrued through undergraduate education and grad school can afford to take on an entry-level position as biologist that only pays $40,000 per year. God forbid they try to start a family or buy a house at the same time. If the U.S. wants to stay on top of innovation and the world, for that mater, significant education reform will need to be set in motion to reverse current trends. Until we realize that loans and credits are only part of the solution, U.S. workers should start looking for jobs outside the country. That is if anyone will think they are qualified enough.