This month’s Four Peaks Hacking Edu series draws to a close tonight – or more aptly – moves onto a new series of initiatives. Despite the month’s hyperbolic “crisis” premise, the consensus among most of the participants is that Higher Ed itself isn’t necessarily in crisis, but paying for Higher Ed is in crisis. Even Ben Huh (probably the month’s most provocative speaker) didn’t dismiss the value of a college education entirely. According to Huh, college was a place where he could study philosophy and read Dostoevsky and he valued that experience despite their relevance (or lack there of) to what he does now as a web content developer and entrepreneur.
The crisis in paying for higher education was reaffirmed yesterday when the Associated Press reported on economic figures that pegged borrowing costs for college tuition surpassing borrowing for consumer credit and auto loans. The AP reports that tuition debt is actually rising while consumer borrowing has leveled out or declined. Most of that debt is held by people under the age of thirty. It doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar, rocket scientist or even a college professor to figure out that this debt load is unsustainable. Even Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is moving to the center on student debt. Interest rates on federal student loans was cut by Congress in 2006 from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent. Without congressional renewal, those rates will reset back to 6.8 percent later this year. Romney has joined President Obama in calling for congressional renewal of the current lower rate.
The student debt crises is just one economic challenge to Higher Ed. Ken Rufo pointed out in his earlier Ghost in the Wire, Hacking Edu post, that globalization and cuts to education budgets have all conspired to create a deep and troubling general educational funding crises in the United States. Over time this will add competitive pressures on the United States as the UK and the EU eventually emerge from recession and austerity. If this week’s first round of presidential elections in France is in anyway indication, Europe might be moving away from austerity governments and towards more progressive stimulus regimes. The recent news that Britain has again fallen into recession has given fresh ammunition to Keynesian critics of the harsh austerity budgets supported by recent central EU budget accords.
If Europe moves to the left, healthcare and education subsidies there will continue or increase and this is where the US economy is most vulnerable. The double burden of current healthcare costs and personal debt will hamper US GDP in ways that European economies can avoid if stimulus budgets take hold and work. Indeed, upward economic mobility is now more a characteristic of Europe than it is the United States.
Let that fact sit in for a minute.
As much as Democracy (and more than Equality), Liberty was of paramount value to the framers of the US Constitution. While conservatives have decried the supposed trampling of the Constitution by the Obama administration, rising debt, income inequality and rising health care costs have limited social mobility and economic liberty more than judicial, congressional or executive overreach. Now that the dream of homeownership has been decimated in the United States, the rising costs of education coupled with increased debt load seriously challenges the basic tenets of what was once called the American Dream. Free public K-12 education and affordable college tuition along with homeownership were the foundations of post-war American prosperity. How long will we let those flounder and what will be the role of the academy?
How far can Four Peaks/Hacking Edu go to solving these problems? Smartly, the student organizers of this month’s events have tamped down on some of the more hyperbolic language around the issue and have kept expectations reasonable. Initiatives that will be discussed tonight include: a more robust policy discussion around funding Higher Ed; a continual addressing of the very real challenges of the digital divide; a desire to reach beyond traditional academic department silos for interdisciplinary solutions to academy challenges; an examination of the role of the teacher in the open-source classroom and following the lead of several of the April Four Peaks guests, reify the very real benefits of Higher Ed credentialing.
Tonight’s events will be held at Jet City Improv from 4:00pm until 6:00pm and begin with an introduction by X-Prize Foundation Senior Director
of Exploration Erika Wagner. The event is co-hosted by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and costs $10.00.