A Wall Street Journal article is reimagining university finances as a wealth transfer program that steals from the rich and middle class to give to the poor. In doing so, writer Douglas Belkin attempts to reframe the current class war in the United States.
Belkin’s argument starts with the fact that government has withdrawn massive subsidies from public universities in recent years. Belkin does not mention that this cutback resulted from an historic lowering of taxes on the wealthy. The way that public universities made up the shortfall from reduced government subsidies was to raise tuition. But, as many American families understand with painful clarity, that pushed tuition out of reach of many deserving students. Universities have responded by giving tuition breaks to more and more working class and poor students.
The article quotes from both poor students who say they wouldn’t be able to attend college without the tuition breaks and from students whose families make amounts that are just out of reach for qualifying for needs-based aid. One student bemoans the irony of her tuition payments subsidizing poorer students while she will graduate with educational loans to pay. The article seems to postulate that the sole reason for tuition increases has been to make sure middle class and rich students pay enough to carry their poorer cohorts.
Following the money is often helpful in understanding a situation, but in this case, the Journal has only followed half the money trail, the half after tax cuts have gutted state and federal budgets. When we follow the complete unvirtuous cycle that has radically changed the nature of college finances over the past 30 years we see that the real transfer of wealth has not been down the ladder but up the ladder. Rich folk pay less in taxes, and the middle class and poor pay more in tuition. When we consider that rich folk represent a higher percentage of private school students, which enjoy no or limited government support, the redistribution of wealth upwards intensifies. Moreover, it is naïve to think that most poor state school students get enough of a tuition break to make up for the obscene inflation in college costs over recent decades.
Behind the Journal’s partial and partisan math looms the politics of selfishness, the benighted idea that it always unfair to make a citizen pay for another citizen. The ideology of selfishness informs and shapes the entire article. It describes the efforts of students in Texas and protestors in other states to fight what the article calls “set-asides,” funds earmarked from tuition to pay for tuition discounts for needy students. The article quotes Ronald Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute; “We used to believe that public higher education benefited all residents of a state, not only the people who were attending, because the more highly educated workforce meant more economic growth…But now our society has moved toward the notion that the people who are paying are the ones who will benefit, so they should pay.”
The idea that society does not benefit from an educated workforce is complete nonsense and a dangerous notion. More dangerous, though, is the underlying idea that group solutions to public challenges are inherently unfair. The typical family will need public college for 4-12 years, depending on how many children they have. Most people couldn’t possible afford to pay for a high quality education over that amount of time. Fortunately, most people remain in the work force for 40-45 years, giving them extra time to pay their fare share in taxes. Cutting taxes and making people pay for their or their children’s college education over a much shorter time will naturally lead to financial problems. The Journal wants us to blame those problems on the poor, when it fact they have emerged primarily because the wealthy have decided to retreat from the social contract which ruled this country from the end of the Great Depression to the mid 1970’s.
Conservatives like to blame the poor and like even more to pretend that the best interests of the middle class are different from those of the poor and working class. They want to pit the poor against the middle class, so neither will realize who is perpetrating the real class war. But the college financial crisis has as its root cause the same dynamic that has led to our sluggish job recovery, the increased inequality of wealth, our public school challenges and our decaying infrastructure of mass transit, bridges and roads: Taxes are too low, especially on the wealthy, and have been for many years now. As a nation, we have replaced the social contract that created a middle class nation with a dog-eat-dog, I’m-only-in-it-for-myself ideology that helps the rich take more.