Economics professor talks de-investment in higher education

Ellie Hislop, Contributing Writer

In 1995, the United States was ranked No. 1 in the world for college completion. As of 2012, the country has moved down to No. 19 in the rankings. Dr. William Spriggs of Howard University’s Department of Economics spoke to University students on Oct. 12 about the recent trend of public de-investment in education.

Some of the most shocking examples of this can be seen right here in Pennsylvania, where state funding of college education has been cut by 33 percent since 2008, and in Arizona, where it has been cut by 56 percent.

“We stopped trying to be number one,” Spriggs said of states who are increasingly appropriating less money for students’ tuition. He described how it has now become the student’s role to make their college education affordable, “you either pay or you don’t.”

Spriggs explained that it is impossible for the United States to stay in first place when subsidies are being reduced. One of the most popular solutions to tax cuts is a general shrink of government involvement, which then results in a decrease in educational investments. A common excuse used to defend this trend is: why should we be subsidizing your college experience if you’re going to be making money in the end as a doctor or lawyer?

Universities are market-driven institutions fighting to remain competitive and stay in business, Spriggs explained. Therefore, they do not focus on acquiring students from the bottom 50 percent, whose population is primarily composed of minority groups. They aim to appeal to the richest 10 percent, who account for 46 percent of all U.S. expenditures on education.

Associate Professor of Economics Nina Banks has first-hand experience with this wide scale de-investment process. As an undergraduate she attended an all-women’s college which enrolled mostly upper-middle class students and had very little racial or socioeconomic diversity, and as a graduate student she attended a state school in Massachusetts at the time when the state began to de-invest in higher education.

“Sadly, we saw the effects of this de-investment with loss of money for teaching assistantships and new faculty positions and with increased tuition. This had the effect of making the university less affordable for low-income and middle-class students at both the undergrad and graduate levels,” Banks said.

According to Spriggs, universities are now striving to appeal only to a target group of elite customers who can afford to pay a hefty college tuition. For example, SAT scores and family income are highly correlated. Therefore, schools will often raise their average scores in order to make themselves look better. This ultimately drives out many of the under-represented minority students whose family’s median income cannot keep up.

Colleges are doing such a disservice to society because they are the reason the gap between the rich and the poor will continue to increase,” Julienne Egofske ’20 said.

The top 10 percent says, “go ahead and continue to raise the prices to match my income so I don’t have to be around poor people,” according to Spriggs. This leaves the middle class asking, “What about us?  How do we get an education to advance our lives and careers?”

Professor of Economics Geoff Schneider suggested, “If we really want to help people escape poverty in this country, while also providing employers with the most skilled work force possible, we should be moving towards a system in which everyone who wants to go to college can do so. Policies enacted by state legislatures and governors to slash funding for higher education make little economic sense, and we should, in fact, be moving in the opposite direction, following the lead of the rest of the developed world.”

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