Canisius can help solve the student debt problem

By Jonathan Beck

News and Opinion Editor Emeritus

This is how things were yesterday; this is how they are today; and therefore, this is how they ought always to be.

I was disappointed in President John Hurley’s letter to the Canisius community this past week, which I read as relying on the fallacy above. In recognizing a threat to the financial well-being of Canisius College – an institution that I hold in highest esteem – he explicitly and implicitly argued against socially just outcomes in favor of ossifying class and racial inequalities. As a result, he failed to acknowledge institutional responsibility for the building higher education debt crisis; he betrayed the ideals of Canisius’ Jesuit mission; and he reinforced a false dichotomy of options for higher education funding.

I urge President Hurley to consider the following question: does Canisius exist for the sake of its own existence, or does it serve some higher social purpose? If the former, then his letter and lobbying activities are perfectly rational, if not also socially irresponsible. But if the latter – and I personally believe this is the true and better choice! – then he needs to expand his imagination and reconsider his opposition to the Excelsior Scholarship.

First, it’s important to note the ways in which President Hurley’s concerns are not new, but part of a historical pattern. Indeed, private colleges in the U.S. have historically fought to protect their role as elite institutions, and fought against the expansion of public education. In a study of the politics of education in the U.S., political scientist Margaret Weir notes that while western states almost universally established public university systems soon after achieving statehood, “[i]n the East and Midwest, political opposition from private colleges had limited the public role in higher education primarily to teachers’ colleges and technical institutes.”

This is not surprising, but it is disheartening. One way in which private colleges have succeeded in slowing the expansion of public higher education is by lobbying against free public access to such institutions. The very idea of tuition is not a natural one, but was constructed over time as a gatekeeper of class and race privilege. Indeed, most other advanced capitalist societies have historically rejected the idea of tuition fees. One obvious argument in their favor is that they increase the pool of money available for educational purposes and to progressively redistribute benefits to lower and middle income students. What we have seen, however, is that the privatization of funding has actually resulted in higher government expenditures and more disproportionate harm to low and middle income students, as institutions compete over money for non-academic purposes.

Take England as an example: Prior to 1998, all students attended university tuition-free, and in many cases even received grants paying for their room and board. In the fewer than 20 years since tuition fees were introduced – at only £1,000 a year! – they have grown to rival the average cost of public university tuition in the United States. At the same time that tuition fees in England have increased more than tenfold from that original introduction, state expenditures on higher education grew from .86% of GDP in 1997 to 1.2% in 2012. That is, while average students began to take on tremendous debt, state financial obligations continued to grow. Tuition became a cause of, not a solution to, tremendous social problems. This is even more true in the United States.

This is especially important for Canisius as a Jesuit institution, as it aims, according to its website, to espouse “the Jesuit principles of human excellence, care for the whole person, social justice, and interreligious dialogue.” But these values, social justice in particular, mean little in theory if they are not also expressed in practice. For example, while Buffalo State College, Canisius’ closest public competitor, is approximately 52% white, over 75% of Canisius students are white. Students of color in particular, and low income students more generally, are disproportionately harmed by systemic and institutional practices that Canisius, though certainly with the best of intentions, has continued to reinforce. Financial barriers to higher education need not continue to exist, and Canisius has the opportunity to be a part of the solution.

President Hurley has presented the institutional dilemma as a zero-sum game. Either SUNY schools can offer free tuition to low and middle income families at the expense of Canisius’ continued existence, or NYS can increase TAP grants and benefit SUNY and private school students (albeit with continually growing tuition fees). But these are not the only options! In other countries, such as Germany, private universities receive the vast majority of their funding through public resources. This requires certain compromises, of course, and might entail painful institutional changes, but the net result is that students pay very little in fees (and no tuition) to attend university.

I suggest that President Hurley offer his full throated support for the Excelsior Scholarship (an imperfect but important attempt to address many of these problems), but that he also lobby the state to maintain the current cost disparity between public and private institutions. That is, Canisius should commit to solutions that will bring down its costs to students in partnership with the state. Students who prefer the wonderful opportunities that Canisius has to offer will be just as willing to pay that difference between free SUNY tuition and the newly adjusted costs of Canisius as they are today. Significantly, though, they will be able to do so with less debt, and will enter their working lives as innovative and financially secure women and men for others.

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