Where We Stand

By Randi Weingarten, AFT President

Elections matter. Your vote matters. Your voice matters.

Higher education has always been lauded as the stepping stone to a new life. These days, the skyrocketing cost of a college education is leaving many Americans saddled with crippling debt. For others, it is simply pushing that stepping stone out of reach.

The problem is only getting worse as students and their families are shouldering more and more of the rising costs. In 2012, Americans spent nearly $525 billion on higher education, twice the amount spent in comparable industrialized countries. What’s more, students enrolled at public colleges and universities in particular are paying an ever-larger share, according to the most recent data from the Delta Cost Project.

What is driving this discouraging trend?

Through austerity and legislative budget cuts, states have been disinvesting in higher education for many years. From fiscal year 2003 to 2012, the percentage of state funding for total revenues at public institutions fell from 31 percent to 22 percent, according to the Center for American Progress.

In Michigan, state funding for higher education has decreased by 32 percent over the past five years. In Pennsylvania, tuition at four-year public colleges and universities is the highest in the nation, and students graduate with the third-highest average debt load. In Wisconsin, long-standing underfunding has led to fewer course choices, fewer faculty members, faculty who are paid lower salaries than their peers, fewer resources and fewer student services.

Wall Street has made things worse. What some call “skim” many observers see as blatant profiteering.

In 2012, $45 billion was spent servicing institutional debts of colleges and universities, on student loan interest payments and in profits to for-profit institutions of higher education. That’s a 53 percent increase from 2002 and a whopping 9 percent of all higher education spending, just handed over to Wall Street. (See infographic on the opposite page.)

That’s why the AFT, through its “Higher Ed, Not Debt” campaign, is fighting to reclaim the promise of public education. But as our report about Wall Street skim, “Borrowing Against the Future,” has demonstrated, it takes more than simply demands and facts to ensure a college education once again can be a viable pathway to a better future for all. It takes voting.

We need to send a message at the polls in November that we will not stand by and let our system of higher education become another profit center for Wall Street. We need to show our governors, our state legislators and our representatives in Congress that we must and will support elected officials who will invest in our nation’s future by making higher education a budgetary priority.

Elections matter.

In Congress, we have been working with Sen. Elizabeth Warren to pass the Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act to help current borrowers refinance their student loans. Unfortunately, this bill, which would allow students to do the same thing with their student loans that we all can do with our car loans and mortgages, has been blocked by politicians who work at the behest of Wall Street.

We need your vote in November to send Wall Street out of Congress.

Elections matter.

A recent study by Kent State University Professor C. Lockwood Reynolds shows that inflation-adjusted tuition at public colleges and universities is 1.5 percent lower in gubernatorial election years than in other years. What that means is that governors already realize that college affordability is an election issue. We can’t let them run away from their non-election-year positions.

We need to tell Govs. Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Rick Snyder in Michigan and others that their chronic disinvestment in higher education is a one-way ticket out of the governor’s mansion.

Elections matter. Your vote matters. Your voice matters.

In 2012, business spent $9.5 billion on political activities—dwarfing the $600 million spent by unions. We will never match their dollar power. What we can do is out-work and out-organize to elect those who care about the promise of college affordability, and we can demand that they keep their promise every day they are in office.

But we have to vote. We have to knock on doors. We have to talk to our friends, our neighbors and our families and remind them that our nation’s future is too important to leave to the whims of Wall Street profiteers and greedy politicians.

You are the trusted messengers in your communities. We need you to deliver that message like never before.

I hope you will join me and your AFT brothers and sisters as we work tirelessly over the next few weeks to ensure that college affordability, and the ideal of higher education as a pathway to a better future, are priorities in this election.

We can’t let the promise of higher education slip out of reach for this or any other generation of Americans.  

AFT On Campus, Fall 2014
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