Congress will predictably pat itself on the back once it’s able to put the student loan interest rate Humpty Dumpty back together again. The White House is already celebrating the bipartisan compromise as a rare moment of Washington comity, as if some big breakthrough has occurred. Editorials are touting this as a big deal and it might just be for millions of college students and unlucky graduates shouldering the pain of a sickening load of debt.
But is it really? We’re talking it up about interest rates — but where is the larger conversation on ridiculous college tuition costs? Lots of heavy political lifting is going into something that appears to only nibble at the edge of the larger problem. Keeping interest rates from doubling might offer some sense of relief. Still, that’s only scratching the surface as it avoids needed discussion on the actual cost of tuition itself. Why do colleges feel the need to keep raising tuition? Why get excited about an interest rate decrease if many students can’t afford the cost of the tuition in the first place?
Since 2000, college tuition increases have surpassed the rate of inflation. The College Board pegs annual increases at 5.4 percent. And students can’t turn to public universities for relief anymore since state funding per pupil dropped 21 percent in the last decade with total public funding for higher education falling nearly 15 percent.
Having a conversation on interest rates doesn’t exactly solve the increasingly unsustainable higher education cost model that everyone — from students to parents to politicians — is embracing as normal. We all simply accept it as the sacrifice needed in pursuit of the picket fence, two cars and single-family home. You won’t find students shutting down their college campuses or staging sit-ins on this issue. You might, however, find some breaking down in tears and begging for mercy at the bursar’s office. But, something is wrong with this picture if we’re not seriously addressing the root cause behind so many potentially promising young people being actively cut out of higher education opportunities.
It’s not just college tuition. Everything is, as former New York mayoral and gubernatorial candidate Jimmy McMillan has called it, “… too damn high.” You can’t really clown him for that (despite his looks) because the man makes a point untouched by political candidates and elected officials who are, for the most part, wealthy and far removed from the everyday milk-buying struggles of average folk. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, all 535 Members of Congress in the House and Senate have a median net worth of $966,000 — while the median net worth of the average American household is $66,500 … and falling.
That might explain the almost fetish-like preoccupation with issues that don’t normally make it to the kitchen table during those post-dinner sweat sessions over the bills. Paying an obscenely abnormal $4 per gallon at the gas pump doesn’t hit their pocket as hard as those who vote for them, so we all have to simply “man up” and just accept the 83 percent increase in gas prices since 2009. They don’t really get it; interest rates are more important to a rich politician’s bottom line (as well as those who can afford to make campaign contributions) than what’s actually keeping many people from accessing a college in the first place.
The White House wants you to think “Obamacare” represents some historic advancement in health care delivery — but is it really reining in the actual cost of healthcare? We may have more access to health care, but we still end up paying a lot more than any other developed country for a variety of basic procedures (hence, $30,000 to give birth to an American baby, but $15,000 in England if you give birth to the Prince of Cambridge). Doctors, hospitals and pharmaceutical executives are laughing all the way to their banks since they still get to charge whatever price they want. And while Capitol Hill is caught up in interest rates, IRS scandals and an immigration reform bill that less than 5 percent of the population really cares about, nothing is really being done about the fact that as wages decline, the average price of everything else is just too damn high.
CHARLES D. ELLISON is the Washington Correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune and UPTOWN Magazine. He is also the weekly Washington Insider for WDAS 105.3 FM (Philly) every Sunday at 9:50 am ET. He can be reached via Twitter @charlesdellison.