The war on education

Heather Bryant / Editor-in -Chief
Sep. 13, 2011

Outrage is exhausting. So I try to avoid it.

I avoid the Johansen Expressway at rush hour. I avoid the movie theatre on Friday nights when it seems like all the parents in town have dropped off their teenagers. I especially try to avoid cable news outlets.

But when I find a story about cutting financial aid to college students right next to story about the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) wasting billions on failed projects, outrage creeps up on me like a tailgater on Tanana Drive.

The U.S. Budget Control Act of 2011 established a committee to balance the budget, raise the debt ceiling and make immediate spending cuts. Those cuts included eliminating subsidized federal student loans for graduate students. Federal subsidized loans are loans for which the government pays the interest while the student is actively in school. There are other federal student loans, but only the subsidized version pays a student’s interest. Eliminating those loans for graduate students means graduate students will have to pay for interest accrued during their program. This can add thousands of dollars to the amount that the student would have to pay back. According to CNN Money a graduate student who borrows the maximum of $65,500 in subsidized loans would owe $207 a month in interest payments over the course of 10 years. This would add approximately $25,000 to the student’s debt.

The act also eliminates the interest rate discount for all student borrowers who make on time payments. The discount for using auto-pay was left intact.

According to Fastweb, a financial aid website, of the estimated $21.6 billion in savings over 10 years, $17 billion will be used to address the funding shortfall in the Pell Grant program. The remaining $4.6 billion will be redirected toward deficit reduction.

Yes, the subsidized loans were cut and Pell Grants were boosted slightly. It may be considered that cutting the loans was better than the grants. But are we really at a point where we want to debate which education cuts are better? Bloated budgets such as the DHS can withstand the cuts far better than education.

A number of recent articles recounted the wastes of the haphazardly formed DHS. Since 2001, the United States has spent more than a trillion dollars on security efforts, not including the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to an article published by Nieman Watchdog. The same article notes “a recent study of decision-making at DHS by the National Academy of Sciences concludes essentially that DHS doesn’t know what it is doing.” Failed programs, such as the “virtual fence” that was supposed to secure the Mexican border cost more than $1 billion alone.

The U.S. government created the DHS in fear. Ten years ago, we were attacked in a tragic and shocking way. The government threw money at the problem, money spent in the name of safety and security so events like Sept. 11 wouldn’t happen again. And because that threat has been so exaggerated and peddled by politicians seeking applause and attention, the fear became part of how our country works.

No politician is going to vote for spending cuts for security. If another terrorist attack happened, they would never survive politically. Programs like education take the place on the chopping block. However, what we should fear now is not terrorism, it’s how much the United States is falling behind economically and educationally.

The current structure of financing college education is broken. Student loans generate massive debt. Some economists consider them a looming economic problem that could be worse than sub-prime mortgages. However, until the system is overhauled, we shouldn’t make cuts that compound the problem. Why make the loans even harder to pay back by increasing the strain on students already struggling with repayment? The University of Alaska Fairbanks has approximately 1,500 graduate students. Any student taking out federal loans after July of 2012 will have to also repay the additional interest generated.

An educated population is our best defense against both a flagging economy and threats to our safety. The best way for us to accomplish this is to begin the process of reforming how we educate our students. Until then, we have to make decisions that consider the long-term consequences. Creating a system where higher education becomes even less affordable will discourage those seeking it.

Ultimately, reforming our higher education system is a complex and nuanced problem to tackle. We won’t be able to do it without realigning our priorities with what is best for our future. It’s time to choose planning ahead to create the world we want to live in rather than remaining in a world built from outrage and fear because what has happened in the past.

Heather Bryant

The Sun Star

(907) 474-5078

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