College may prepare students for good careers, but these days, it also pushes many already poor students into lifelong debt. In this segment of FM89’s Commentary Series The Moral Is, Fresno State biology professor Dr. Madhusudan Katti asks how much American society truly values university education?
As we head into another holiday season, we gather to give thanks for what we have, and are urged to share with those less fortunate. However, as a professor at a public university, I am appalled by the fact that more and more of my students are among those less fortunate, yet we are not doing enough to help them.
A recent survey at Fresno State tells me that one in three students in my classroom face food insecurity. Another 20% are close to the brink. My students are literally hungry, and not just for knowledge. Most will stagger to the finish line still hungry, graduating under a life sentence of crushing debt. Their stories give new meaning to questions about the value and the price of a university education.
It is hard not to find America’s student debt burden immoral when the Congressional Budget Office announces that the US Department of Education profited to the tune of $51 billion on student loans this year, a profit higher than Exxon’s. Yet we tell kids they must go to college to get a good career, and take loans to invest in their future.
While developed nations like Germany offer free university education, American public universities face shrinking budgets. So they keep hiking tuition, hire more low-wage adjunct faculty, and keep salaries for tenured professors stagnant. Some campuses, like my own, even charge hidden "success fees", nickel-and-diming students in tacit acknowledgment that mere tuition is not nearly enough anymore to ensure their graduation.
We might as well ask students to plop down their credit cards when they arrive, as we put their diploma on layaway to be collected after they've paid the full price of tuition over 4-6 years. How much can or should they care about actually learning anything, on an often empty belly, given the high price-tag on that diploma? We have let education become a commodity transaction between overworked, underpaid, insecure faculty teaching overloaded classes full of hungry, indebted students facing uncertain futures.
Fresno State now offers starving students a free pantry stocked with food recovered from its farms, although teaching them to farm might be more useful than charity. The federal government may lower interest rates on student loans. Real lasting solutions, though, require fundamental changes in how we fund and run universities. American society must search its soul to determine the real value of education, not just for the individual student seeking a job, but for a once advanced nation that has lost its way. Lady liberty may hold a beacon welcoming the hungry, tired, huddled masses to America, but for my university classroom, I urge you to send me eager well-fed students, hungry only for knowledge.