Education, student debt, and Election Day


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Because this past weekend was parents weekend, many students likely recalled moving to college for the first time and laboring to get mom and dad to just leave. From high school to college and now, at long last, some form of independence. If only mom and dad would get back in the car and drive away.

Yes, some parents just find it difficult to just say goodbye. But, as the New York Times Economix blog pointed out earlier this year, I imagine money has something to do with it. The average family pays for college primarily through parental income, savings, and loans taken out by one or both parents, according to a Sallie Mae and Gallup report. And students are graduating with increasing amounts of debt. The financial burden on both parents and students to pay for college is crushing.

The Project on Student Debt released a report last week that only reaffirms this long-standing trend. According to the report, 2009 college graduates carried an average of $24,000 in student debt. That’s a 6 percent increase from the previous year. Iowa graduates, on average, accumulated almost $29,000 in student debt, one of the highest levels in the country. An astonishing 74 percent of all Iowa graduates were in debt.

Many from the class of 2010 will find gainful employment, while others will struggle in their job searches. What you can be sure of is graduates will carry a level of debt that surpasses the debt burden of previous generations.

And with unemployment so persistently high, the debt level graduates are carrying should be a point of serious concern. The unemployment rate for graduates climbed from 5.8 percent in 2008 to 8.7 percent in 2009 — the highest annual rate on record for college graduates aged 20 to 24, according to the Project on Student Debt report.

This election, in many respects, has been about the economy and jobs. The economy is still anemic, and voters all across the country seem ready to give more power to a crop of candidates who don’t believe government should play a significant role in its recovery.

Some candidates would like to see the complete abolishment of the federal Department of Education, the same agency that underwrites billions in student aid each year. College affordability and a specific discussion on job creation for graduates haven’t been high on the radar, unfortunately. But they need to be.

In Iowa, Republican gubernatorial candidate Terry Branstad has all but assumed Iowa voters will find Chet Culver so distasteful that they will hand him the keys to Terrace Hill. Like many Republican candidates across the country, he’s promised to cut the state budget without specifying what programs he intends to cut. If Branstad is at all sincere in his pledge to cut the state budget by 15 percent, he likely will have to cut education.

Funding for public universities, community colleges, and state aid to local schools make up more than 60 percent of Iowa’s budget, according to the nonpartisan Iowa Fiscal Partnership. The likely result of additional government cuts would be even more debt for students. That doesn’t seem like a reasonable way to go about reducing the budget.

Cuts to higher education leave many students and families scrambling to pick up an increasing tab. Furthermore, it is inconceivable that the state can maintain its quality of life without a strong higher-education system.

I just hope students and parents had time in the midst of the game and stocking up on groceries to discuss this as well.

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