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Senator Harkin on the Root Cause of Rising Student Debt

Joseph Hines

He said there's been a stunning abdication of responsibility on the part of states to preserve college affordability.

While student debt receives plenty of policymaker attention recently, there's been little unanimity on solutions. But Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) had a refreshingly clear take at a Senate committee hearing on a higher education hearing this week:

The steady erosion of state investment in public higher education over the last few decades reflects a stunning abdication of responsibility on the part of states to preserve college affordability.

Senator Harkin's right: while 25 years ago, tuition at public colleges accounted for less than a quarter of their operating costs, in 2012 that had risen to nearly half.

Harkin's assertion, and focus on public colleges, echoes Demos' Great Cost Shift Continues report, which showed that all but one state (North Dakota, thanks to rapidly ballooning state revenue) is spending less per student on higher education than before the recession. Even more striking, average tuition at 4-year public schools now consumes more than a third of median household income in 22 states. 

That places even public colleges out of reach for far too many Americans. While in the past year states have restored a fraction of the higher education budgets cut during the recession, they haven't made a dent on the historic and steady divestment over the past quarter century.

It isn't only student debt. The abdication of state responsibility and investment in higher education as a public good makes students go into debt, go to worse schools, or avoid college altogether. In his testimony, Harkin also rightly argued that "too few low-income and minority students graduate from college, and states can and must play a more ambitious role in boosting degree attainment among these students." In addition, too few students apply to better schools with a higher price tag. 

States have moved from viewing college as a public good to a private burden, resulting in the rise of today's debt-for-diploma system. It's time for our policymakers to grapple with the myriad impacts of this ideological shift, and Senator Harkin's testimony and call for state reinvestment is a good start. Hopefully more federal lawmakers will follow his lead.