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Funding Higher Education as We Did in the Past

In 1978, I enrolled at what was then called West Liberty State College. My choice of colleges was restricted by my family’s finances. People who lived in the Upper Ohio Valley in the late 1970s and early 1980s can tell you about how the local economy virtually collapsed in those years.

My father, a building contractor, had to leave the valley to find work to make ends meet. Under those circumstances, he could not afford much in the way of tuition. But West Liberty’s bargain tuition at the time saved me, in more ways than one.

In the fall of 1978, my in-state tuition for a full semester load was under $200 — if memory serves, it was $165. Currently, West Liberty’s website lists a full-time in-state semester cost of $3,519. Now I know one has to make an adjustment for inflation, but the contrast is stark.

My textbooks that semester, all of them, cost about $75 total. You’d be lucky to find one textbook that costs that little nowadays. I still have my “Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare” textbook from that era, a large, bulky text (I am acutely aware of this because I still sleep with it). The price, written in pencil on the inside cover, was $17.95.

For my first two years of college I commuted to West Lib, and gas cost me about twenty bucks a week. Federal grants and summer jobs at the old Picoma mill north of Martins Ferry enabled me to afford room and board, and I lived on campus for my junior and senior years. I graduated from West Lib in May of 1982 with no debt whatsoever. I received an excellent college education and never had to take out a student loan.

I tell this story to make a point and provide a contrast to what contemporary students face in trying to afford a college education. Why was my education such a bargain? I’ll tell you why. Back then states provided the lion’s share of the budgets at public colleges. The state of West Virginia effectively subsidized my educational costs, and I am grateful.

But my how times have changed, and it’s a nationwide phenomenon, and a sinister trend has long been afoot. Americans built the greatest college system in the history of the earth. And now we are starving it to death by cutting its funding lifeblood.

In order to remain functional in the face of mounting budget cuts, colleges are now constantly raising tuition. They don’t want to. They have to. And who is picking up the bill? Students and their families. In this way, the poor and middle classes are getting squeezed once again.

I read horror stories of students graduating with enormous debt loads. I’m talking tens of thousands of dollars, and a budget-busting loan payment every month. And you cannot declare bankruptcy to get out from under it. It’s like having a mortgage only you don’t get the house.

Now how are you supposed to get started in life, dragging this debt ball-and-chain around? How can you afford housing and an automobile, let alone marriage and kids? No wonder so many college graduates in their 20s and 30s are living with their parents. They can’t afford to live on their own.

In this election year, people are talking about the roiling discontent of voters fed up with a politics where the rewards for hard work are all getting vacuumed upwards to the wealthy. Abundant evidence points to how a college education is an engine of economic growth and opportunity. Yet we make it harder and harder for students to afford it.

Naturally, the moneychangers, bankers and lenders make plenty of money off the current system because of the profit generated by student loan debt interest. We have built an economy that benefits the paper-shuffling financial sector, at the expense of the working class. The American Dream has become a debt treadmill.

Now students are questioning whether a college diploma is even worth it, when it requires shouldering the burden of a crushing debt load. I know people in their 40s who are still paying off their student loans. It makes this whole Land of Opportunity hooey we spout sound hollow and hypocritical.

We built the greatest system of higher education in the world. Our public colleges are a shining beacon, the visionary glory of our forebears, and practical and productive investments in our collective future.

We should fund them rather than starve them. Our students deserve to be supported, not exploited by loan usury. We should restore our state public college funding to the levels of the 1960s and 1970s and make college affordable again.

Rogerson, of Wheeling, is a professor of English at West Virginia Northern Community College.


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