Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Breaking Point

Any wonder why so few Nevadans complete higher education?

Casey Stiteler, Associated Students of the University of Nevada president, said Nevada's ranking with other states is not as important as the cost. "For a lot of Nevada students, cost is a factor. They are not planning to go other schools. They are planning to go here," he said.

Stiteler said he was proud of how students responded to cuts and higher tuition in recent years.

"But the problem is now when do we reach our breaking point?" he said. "What is the sign that enough is enough?

"We have to be close to the point where we are closing Nevadans out of higher education."

Alex King, 23, a UNR biology junior, said he will take fewer classes and graduate later if tuition is raised significantly. As it is, he said graduating on time is difficult because only one section of each class he needs is offered each semester.

He already works full-time to go to school.

"It is really expensive, living on your own and going to college," he said. "If they keep raising prices, it takes longer to graduate."

And that runs counter to the Regents' goal to boost timely graduation rates.

"I don't know what I am going to do with a 13 percent increase," said Kaylee Waters, 20, a UNR community health sciences sophomore from Truckee. "My parents are helping me, and I have a job, and that pays for books. My family is going to feel it more."

And why are these students so worried? Oh, the Board of Regents will just be voting on proposals that could raise Nevada college tuition by as much as 13%! As if students didn't have enough to worry about, they now have to figure out all over again how to cover tuition.

But wait, aren't we cheaper than California? Well, that's become an increasingly high bar to stay under. And considering how incredibly expensive UC, and even CSU, tuition has become, that's not much to brag about.

No wonder why students there risked their very lives to protest this.

The assault on publicly funded higher education is wrappedup in the discontents that provoked the Occupy Wall Street movement. Inexpensive state universities are central to the ability of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to move up in the world. The United States used to be known as a society where those at the bottom could hope to get ahead, and where being born with a silver spoon in your mouth was no guarantee of lifetime prosperity. Now, upward mobility has gotten harder, the rich more often stay rich, and Europe is the land of opportunity. European state support for institutions of higher education is key to that mobility. The United States of America, born in a rejection of an aristocracy by birth, is increasingly a land of hereditary oligarchs.

Not only is a more rigid class structure implied by the decline of public support for state universities, but more fixed race boundaries are, as well. State universities are the most important vehicle for minority students in attaining a degree. While 800,000 minority students attend public universities, fewer than 200,000 can be found on private campuses. If the state universities become as expensive as the privates, the impact on minorities could be severe. It should be noted that the choices made by California are not “natural” or “inevitable.” Maryland dealt with the recent crisis in a progressive way, by freezing tuition and raising the corporate tax rate to create a Higher Education Investment Fund.

Why have so many state legislatures betrayed their original commitments to American education? Some have preferred to keep state taxes on the wealthy and on corporations low rather than to keep up with demand for places at state universities. Others have different priorities.

This is the heart of the problem. While the likes of the mining industry and the mega-retailers pay next to nothing in taxes, students are essentially being taxed to the hilt and punished for the "crime" of wanting a college education. We seem to have no problem valuing future NBA All Stars and reality TV stars, but we refuse to value our future leaders.

Any wonder why our state is at its breaking point?

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