One resolution for the new year: Let's make clear the choices we are making as a country. I am certain that if Americans understood the choices that are being made, they would be outraged — whether conservative or liberal, male or female, rich or poor, whatever their race, religion or region.
Consider one choice the Congress is about to make. If the current leadership has its way, the Congress will pass over $100 billion in tax cuts early this year, the vast bulk of which will go to the very wealthy. At the same time, it will cast the final vote to make the largest cut in student college loan programs in history — some $12.7 billion over five years.
I doubt that many Americans would support raising the cost of college for students in order to reduce taxes on the wealthiest Americans, yet that is exactly what the administration and the conservative leadership of Congress are planning.
Two-thirds of all college graduates take out loans to help pay for their college. The average debt of graduates is nearly $20,000. The student loan cuts just passed by Congress, according to experts cited by the Wall Street Journal, will raise the average cost over 10 years by $2,000 to students and $3,000 to parents.
This comes at a time when tuition and fees are soaring. After factoring out inflation, private college costs have risen by over one-third in the last 10 years. Public college costs have soared by over 50 percent. States are cutting back public subsidies to colleges, forcing them to raise tuition and fees. We are witnessing the slow privatization of higher education. The result is to price college out of the reach of more and more American families.
These costs are rising just as we tell Americans that college or specialized training after high school is the sole ticket to the middle class. The good union jobs in industry that paid wages, pensions and health care are disappearing fast. Our leaders — whether Bill Clinton or George Bush — say they can't do anything about that. But, they argue, get your child a college education and they will do just fine in the global economy of the 21st century.
Yet at the same time our leaders tell us that college is indispensable, fewer and fewer families can afford it. The Congressional Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance reports that by 2010 as many as 4.4 million high school graduates will be unable to enroll in a four-year college, and two million will not go to college at all because they can't afford it. Many students in college have to work long hours to help finance their education.
Often that burden is too much for the young to bear. Fifty-three percent of low-income freshmen that work more than 35 hours per week drop out and do not receive a degree. And increasingly, parents, desperate to provide a future for their children, become saddled with college debts as well.
At this moment, our leaders should be summoning the nation to a major effort to ensure that college education is affordable to all. The wealthy should insist on paying higher taxes to ensure that the children of all Americans can afford the educationtheywillneed. Corporations should unleash their high-priced lobbyists to demand that legislators increase grant and loan programs and that states increase their subsidies to public schools.
Instead, the Bush administration demanded cuts in student loans, and the right wing that controls the Congress voted for the largest cut ever — even as they insist on cutting taxes on the wealthiest Americans.
Educating the next generation isn't a time for political posturing, for clever spin, for misleading parents and kids. Let's resolve to make the choices clear. Let Americans decide whether the choices made by the current crowd in power make sense for America.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. is founder and president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.