EDITORIAL

Ensure democracy by investing in education

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Summers are for beaches, barbecues and outdoor concerts. But for Faye, every day of her summers during her college years was spent inside a hot factory, pushing a button many times over.

It was tedious, but it came with a paycheck. One that, by the time her summer was over, allowed her to fund just about every cent of the upcoming fall and spring semesters toward her goal of shaping young minds as an elementary school teacher.

And then finally, here she was, in front of a class of students, sharing her tenacity. Her persistence.

Except this was the early 1980s. A time when tuition, fees, room and board cost less than $3,000 for the whole year — a little more than $10,000 in today’s money. But that’s not the same for teachers walking into our classrooms today, as fall classes begin — not just across Nassau County, but across the country.

That number is now nearly $29,000, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, as reported by Forbes last spring. While those numbers haven’t moved too much since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, they’ve certainly climbed significantly over the past 40 years — nearly three times the rate of inflation.

Going to college is supposed to prepare our best young minds for the future. Instead, it creates significant burdens, with recent graduates carrying debt with them in six figures, many times before they even buy their first car, let alone their first house.

Student loans are typically structured to be present only for the first 10 years of a graduate’s career. But a 2013 study by One Wisconsin Institute said the reality is more like the first 21 years of a career. That means many college graduates are helping to secure student loans for their kids while still paying off their own.

It’s a “circle of life” that shouldn’t even exist. Yet it does. And whether we are products of colleges from the 1980s or today, it affects every one of us. For one, the number of high school seniors choosing college after graduation is dropping. Just 15.9 million pursued undergraduate degrees in 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. That’s down from a peak of 18.1 million in 2010, and has steadily declined ever since.

Yet more than $1.6 trillion in student loans remain outstanding for 45 million people, according to the White House. That’s an average of $36,000 per student.

Such a debt load also makes it harder for new college graduates to get started on their own, independent lives. In fact, more than half of college students surveyed by the Pew Research Center in late 2020 said they were back home living with their parents — the highest percentage since the Great Depression. Sure, we could blame COVID-19, but those numbers were already past 47 percent and climbing even before the pandemic.

Yet the federal government’s plan to forgive up to $20,000 in student debt for anyone not among the super-wealthy is wrong — not because it’s wiping away student debt, but because it’s not wiping away enough of it.

President Biden’s own numbers paint a horrifying picture for America’s post-secondary education system. The cost of a public four-year university has skyrocketed nearly 200 percent since 1980, but federal aid through Pell Grants has grown just 20 percent.

In 1980, Pell Grants could offset 75 percent of your total college expenses. Now? It’s barely 30 percent. That’s not how a country makes education a priority — and it’s certainly not how a country remains a superpower.

This grant forgiveness isn’t a handout. It’s simply our government trying to catch up on the commitment made to every young person so many years ago. That means ensuring that public funding is there while controlling costs at public universities. And at the very least, making community college free.

Even the Founding Fathers believed that education was essential in ensuring democracy, although it would take decades to establish broad-access public schools for children. In 1910, just one out of every 10 people had high school diplomas. Today, it’s above 90 percent.

Investing in education makes a difference — but so does not investing in education. Except that creates the kind of difference we’d rather not experience.

Faye was able to fund her college by not only pressing a button over and over again at a factory all summer long, but because of Washington’s commitment to her education.

Biden’s move on restoring that commitment is a start, but there’s still a long way to go.

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