State of the Union makes weak promises to university students

Sara Donchey
Illustration by Sara Donchey.

Students watching President Obama’s State of the Union address perked up at the mention of the student debt crisis. If only he’d actually brought something new to the table.

For someone who was elected on a platform of radical change, his take on the student debt crisis was unacceptably stale, but it is still reassuring that now there is finally some attention being paid to the this problem at the federal level.

We have witnessed people at both the state and higher education levels attempt to stop the hemorrhaging, but these attempts are not sustainable — especially when they involve slashing vital student services.

The president emphasized that “states also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets.” Nice sentiment, but as any student in California knows, this has not been viable. We cannot rely on the state of California alone to fix this crisis. It was only in December that the CSU, UC and community college systems each lost another $100 million of funding in budget cuts.

Even though institutions have made drastic cutbacks on costs those cutbacks have fallen squarely on the shoulders of students who cannot afford to lose resources. This must change. It is time for institutions to stop culling from the bottom up and start chopping from the top down by eliminating inefficient administration systems and top-level salaries.

The process of reforming student loans and eliminating student debt has to be much more radical than states budgeting more money for higher education.

Obama’s proposal to stop the interest rates on student loans from doubling in July is a start. This stems from 2007 legislation that greatly reduced rates on federally subsidized Stafford loans. Currently, that cut rate is set to expire in July. Interest rates on those loans would jump from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent.

Policy makers need to take some cues from those who are exploring drastic new strategies. Take the “Fix UC” proposal, drafted by a group of students out of UC Riverside. Their plan would require students to commit to paying 5 percent of their annual income for 20 years after graduating. This could possibly triple UC revenue in time.

Is it viable? Would people actually agree to pay a small amount over time rather than go into debt right out of the gate? It is telling that one of the more innovative solutions on the table amounts to little more than indentured servitude.

We need real, radical commitment. We need guarantees that interest rates on student loans won’t double this year. We need assurance that our services, classes, and faculty won’t be cut.

We need leaders willing to work with states, colleges and students to form a real plan.