Can’t afford college? Blame business

Hundreds of thousands of Americans who desire to attend college next year will not do so. The reasons? Reduced class offerings, skyrocketing fees and tightened enrollment caps.

Nationwide, college fees went up 14 percent last year, the steepest jump at public institutions in three decades. In California the increase was even higher—around 30 percent at the state universities, for instance. And recession-caused state funding cuts have forced colleges all over the country to cap enrollments at reduced levels.

Meanwhile, Congress is working to renew the Higher Education Act, which provides more than $60 billion in federal loans and grants to students that could offset the higher fees. More funding is desperately needed, but unfortunately this is the same Republican Congress that already has gone on the biggest spending spree in decades while cutting taxes for the richest Americans.

As a result, there’s no additional money for higher education—indeed, we confront Everest-size federal deficits—and the decline in attendance will continue unabated. This is a disaster in many regards, but it is especially bad for business and the economy.

Why? Because in the long term nothing has contributed to America’s financial well-being more than the steady stream of well-trained, highly skilled students its colleges and universities have turned out. Access to higher education is what has kept this country ahead of all others in entrepreneurship and technological development.

You’d think business would understand this, but it doesn’t. The corporate honchos so closely allied to President Bush and the Republicans in Congress have said nothing about the decline of higher education in the past three years. Ditto the Chamber of Commerce and the Association of Manufacturers and Technology in California. And yet they and their colleagues, more than anyone outside government, should understand the consequences of this decline and work to see that it stops. Just as certainly, they will be much to blame if it continues.