This is the reason why higher-ed is dying

“Partisan politics is to blame,” said Mettler, “it’s what I like to call polarization—a term we political scientists don’t throw around lightly. The extent to which both parties overlap are becoming less and less and part of this is a decline in moderates.”

Polarization is problematic, said Mettler, because it usually causes stalemates, halting amendments, especially when it comes to student financial aid and the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA).

It also causes what Mettler said is Plutocracy.

“Some interests can rise above the fray in a polarized Congress,” she explained. “The problem is that these interests most often come from powerful vested interests, like industry, rather than a group of exploited students.”

Plutocracy is happening, she said, with for-profit colleges today. For-profits, notorious for reaching out to low-income students with limited time availability, often charge much more than traditional public colleges and universities, forcing students to borrow money to pay for the higher tuition.

“The average student leaves a for-profit with $33K in loan debt,” said Mettler. “That perhaps could be manageable if these students were paying off these debts, but they’re not. “

Mettler related how for-profits account for 13 percent of all colleges and universities in the U.S., and one in four use federal student aid dollars made available in the HEA.

“This is a problem because 47 percent of all student loan defaults come from for-profits,” she said. “They have incredibly poor outcomes, yet are allowed to receive 97 percent of HEA’s Title IV, not counting what they get from the G.I. Bill, et cetera.”

Other problems caused by the polarization of Congress, said Mettler, include:

  • Poor state decisions: 73 percent of students attend public state institutions. While these institutions used to be a high point of entry for low-income students, that’s not the case today thanks to the rise in tuition cost, caused by states. States, on average, spend 26 percent less per student than 20 years ago, and tuition has increased by 113 percent in the same amount of time.
  • A broken tax system: Tax dollars are used to support college students, and those dollars are lost revenue to the federal government. Yet, as the statistics prove, these dollars are not increasing access to those students who need it most.

“The U.S.’ identity is at stake,” emphasized Mettler. “We need to step back and think about the purpose of higher education and if the government should have a role in it. Today we only talk about higher education as a private good that helps some individuals be better off, but it should serve the broader public.”

(Next page: The benefits to expanding access; steps from here)