America’s Sputnik moment

The greatest single driver of economic mobility is education, and the growth of America’s middle class in the middle of the 20th century is due in no small part to the GI Bill. By allowing millions of Americans who would otherwise have been unable to afford college to improve their economic competitiveness, the GI bill ushered in a new era of opportunity and broad-based prosperity.

Seeing the prosperity America created through investments in our workforce, other nations followed suit and have now outstripped us in expanding their efforts to encourage college attendance. According to analyses by the College Board issued in 2010, the U.S. has dropped from first to 12th among developed nations with 25- to 34-year-olds who have an associate’s degree or higher (41.6 percent), with countries including Canada (55.8 percent), Russia (55.5 percent) and South Korea (55.5 percent) outpacing the U.S. in compiling an educated workforce. Those statistics should give pause to everyone who cares about the ability of Americans to compete in the global marketplace for talent and innovation.

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Unfortunately, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives has responded to the challenge posed by the nations listed above as well as China and India by voting to slash federal student aid at precisely the moment when such a decision will do the most damage to our long-term prospects for economic competitiveness. The budget passed by House Republicans this spring would wreck the federal government’s ability to support worthy students and make it harder for currently enrolled students to graduate.

Under the Republican Budget, the maximum Pell Grant, the government’s most important aid program for low-income students, would decline by nearly 40 percent by 2014. Over the same period, the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant and Perkins loan programs would not just be cut, but eliminated entirely. Viewed in the light of the effect this plan would have on our workforce, calling the Republican blueprint the “Path to Prosperity” glosses over the inescapable fact that making it harder for America’s youth to go to college will hurt our nation in the long run.

Republicans’ stated rationale for these budget cuts is the specious claim that federal student aid programs are the driver of cost increases in tuition. In fact, the biggest driver of tuition increases is declining support in state budgets for the public institutions of higher education that serve nearly 75 percent of American students.

According to the College Board, state appropriations per full-time student declined by 9 percent in 2008-09 and by another 5 percent in 2009-10 after adjusting for inflation. This has corresponded with a tuition and fee increase of 7.9 percent at public four-year colleges from the 2009-10 school year to the 2010-2011 school year and a 6 percent increase for out-of-state students, with increases at private for-profit institutions averaging 5.1 percent and private not-for-profit institutions averaging 4.5 percent over the same period. 

Other inflation drivers identified by higher education administrators, who actually make pricing decisions, include increasing personnel costs (with healthcare expenses the largest), the mounting burden of deferred maintenance of aging physical plants, and increases in the cost of instructional technology.

President Obama’s State of the Union challenge for America to out-educate, out-innovate and out-compete the rest of the world is something all Americans should support. It echoes a similar challenge from an earlier president for America to be the first nation to put a man on the moon. Education is not the same case, but this generation’s “Sputnik moment” will be our public policy response to the challenges presented by the globalized economy. Retreat is not an acceptable path.

The president understands that winning the future is only possible if we make the right choices today. He deserves great credit for his defense of robust Pell Grants in negotiations with Republicans on tax cuts and spending. Going forward, the congressional supercommittee should make a fair accounting of the benefits of programs that expand college access for deserving and motivated students. Future benefits of investments in the workforce might be difficult to quantify, but the cost of surrendering our leadership of the idea-based economy is incalculable.

Bishop serves on the House Education and Workforce Committee.