Open College To All

The Supreme Court, in another split verdict, on April 22 ruled 6-2 that it’s OK if The People decide that they no longer need to take positive steps to make their universities look like the population at large.

“There is no authority in the Constitution of the United States or in this Court’s precedents for the Judiciary to set aside Michigan laws that commit this policy determination to the voters,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the controlling plurality opinion in the case of Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action. Kennedy added, “This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved. It is about who may resolve it.”

Kennedy was joined by Justice Sam Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts, who previously wrote glibly, in a 2007 case striking down school integration efforts in Washington and Kentucky, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, but suggested that they’d rather throw out racial preferences altogether.

Justice Steven Breyer crossed over from the liberal side to concur with the conservative majority, although he didn’t adopt their reasoning. He said “the Constitution foresees the ballot box, not the courts, as the normal instrument for resolving differences and debates about the merits of these programs.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a vigorous dissent, joined by Justice Ruth Ginsburg, that said the Constitution requires special vigilance in light of the history of slavery, Jim Crow laws and “recent examples of discriminatory changes to state voting laws.” She said the Michigan ban actually gives minorities less power to affect the political process than others, rolling back the impact of previous US Supreme Court rulings protecting the right specifically of Michigan universities to use affirmative action. (Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the case.)

In 2003, the Supreme Court had ruled that the University of Michigan could implement an affirmative action policy. That helped the university get black enrollment up to 6.4% of the freshman class in 2006, compared with 14.3% of the state’s population. That same year, Michigan voters approved a ballot initiative that banned the university from basing its admissions considerations on race or sex. In the following six years, black enrollment fell 30% at the undergraduate and law schools, according to Bloomberg News. In 2012, black enrollment was down to 4.6%.

If conservatives truly were interested in a race-neutral admissions program that would give the same opportunities to black and other minority students that they give to whites, the policy could be crafted, but we see very little good faith in their opposition to affirmative action programs.

The University of Texas also is being sued for its affirmative action policy that grants admission to applicants who graduated in the top 10% of their high school class but also considers race for students who aren’t in the top 10%. Its 2013 freshmen class included 5% blacks (compared with 11.6% of the state’s population), 20% Asian (4.1% statewide), 23% Hispanic (38.2% statewide) and 46% white (44.4% statewide). In UT’s law school, which gives points to minority applicants for diversity, enrollment is 4.7% black, 5.6% Asian, 15.7% Hispanic and 60.8% white. The Supreme Court in June 2013 sent the Fisher case back to the Fifth Circuit US Court of Appeals for a rehearing on whether the university’s admissions program is “narrowly tailored to obtain the educational benefits of diversity.”

White resentment of affirmative action for minorities is one of the main wedge issues that the plutocrats use to split the working class, who ought to recognize their common cause: A bigger barrier to minorities as well as working-class whites who aspire to a college degree is the rising cost of a college education.

Until about two decades ago, a commitment to higher education at the state level ensured that college tuition remained within reach for most middle-class families, and financial aid helped lower-income students afford the costs of college.

Texans used to be proud that university costs were kept low enough that the children of working-class parents could pursue a college education. In 1970, when Rick Perry attended Texas A&M, the state paid 85% of the cost of running the college. Tuition and fees for the regular workload of 15 hours was $104 per semester for Texas residents in 1970. (A student could work that off in just 65 hours at the minimum wage of $1.60 per hour.)

After Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, he targeted higher education funding and ended up cutting Pell grants and excluded middle-class students from the program. He limited the grants to lower-income families, which made it easier for Congress to cut the program further. Reagan also cut low-interest student loans and restricted eligibility for them. He phased out Social Security survivors’ education benefits, which provided one-fifth of student aid in 1981. Republicans at the state level also reduced their commitment to keeping higher education affordable for the working class.

Now Texas pays less than 15% of college costs and in 2012 the average cost for a semester was $7,533 (the equivalent of 1,039 hours at the minimum wage of $7.25). Today it costs more than $25,000 a year for a Texas resident to attend the University of Texas and it can easily cost more than $100,000 to earn a degree — and it costs more in graduate school.

Robert Hiltonsmith and Tamara Draut reported for Demos.org in March that tuition paid 44% of operating expenses for colleges and universities in 2012. That’s up from 20% 25 years earlier. Federal Pell grants once covered $7 of every $10 in college costs, today it covers only $3 of every $10 needed to attend a public college or university. More than seven out of 10 college seniors now borrow to pay for college and graduate with an average of $29,400 in debt. Student loan debt is now more than $1.2 trillion, twice as much as in 2007 and substantial enough to affect the economy as indebted graduates find it harder to buy a home or car.

States should restore their appropriations so that college once again is affordable to students working no more than 20 hours a week. At the current minimum wage, that means tuition should be no more than $3,625 a semester (or $7.250 a year).

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has proposed that the government lend money to university students at the same rate that the Federal Reserve offers the nation’s banks — currently less than 1%. The federal government should not be making a profit off our college students — as it does under the current student loan rate of 3.86% for undergraduates and 5.4% for graduate students, which generated $41.3 billion in profits last year and is expected to generate $127 billion over the next 11 years, the Congressional Budget Office reported in April. Congress last year reduced the federal unsubsidized loan interest rate to 3.86% for undergraduates, but older loans are at higher rates. Warren wants students with loans at higher rates to be able to refinance them at the lower rates.

Warren would pay for the difference by enacting the “Buffett rule,” named after billionaire Warren Buffett, a minimum tax on income in excess of $1 million, which would raise $50 billion in revenue and ensure that millionaires do not pay lower tax rates than middle-class families, as is often the case today.

On the other side, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s latest budget, which passed the House on a party-line vote, would cut another $90 billion from Pell grants and start charging students interest while they’re still in school.

Congress should adopt Sen. Warren’s proposal to offer student loans at cost and adopt the Buffett rule to establish a minimum tax on millionaires to help restore Pell grants for middle-class families. Congress also should increase the minimum wage so that students can pay for their college education with a part-time job. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2014


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