REASON 15: Obama has made financing higher education easier.
When I took my job as a professor at the City College of New York, in Harlem, it was because I believed in the school’s guiding mission to make education as accessible to the poor as it is to the rich. I’m proud to teach at the nation’s leading urban public university. My students reflect the diverse population of both New York City and the larger global society we’re lucky to live in. Many of them are immigrants, or the children of immigrants. Many of them are the first person in their family to go to college. Most of them are working people. None of them take their education for granted. They all hope it is the path to upward mobility and success, and I so want this to be true.
I have taught Iraq War veterans, bus drivers, ex-gangsters, women in burqas, grandmothers and refugees, among others. From the perspective of a novelist who teaches creative writing, it’s thrilling to head a classroom in which every student’s story is unique. I’ve come to learn that true excellence in the body of literature and letters, as with the body politic, privileges the inclusion of, in the words of City College founder Townsend Harris, “the children of the whole people.”
Unfortunately, college is becoming more and more expensive, not just for my students but for students across the nation. Increases in tuition and fees have exceeded the rate of inflation while, for the first time in our history, student loan debt has outpaced credit card debt. According to a recent College Board study, costs rose more than eight percent for the 2011 academic year at public and community colleges. In theory, City College’s mission to provide an affordable education hasn’t changed in the seven years I’ve worked there, but in practice, tuition hikes have been truly punishing on a lot of my students’ pockets. More and more, students who borrow money to afford their education have been graduating saddled with debt, barreling toward default right at the start of their careers.
One of the many reasons I’m voting for Obama this November is for his commitment to making higher education more affordable. The president understands this issue on a personal level. When he and Michelle Obama were first married, they had a combined $120,000 of student loan debt. (Not as much as my husband and me, but still.) More importantly, his student loan reforms greatly increase federal funding for Pell Grants, which are given on a needs basis to low-income undergraduate students to pay for college. Legislation in the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act invests in community colleges, eliminates subsidies charged to the federal government by private lenders like Sallie Mae and Citibank acting as student loan middlemen, spends billions of dollars saved by that action on Pell Grants, extends support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other Minority Serving Institutions like City College, and helps many student borrowers manage their debt by making loan repayments proportionate to their incomes.
While more needs to be done to ease the skyrocketing cost of college education and the burden of debt for students with private loans as well as federal loans, (not to mention students already in default) Obama’s reform represents a real policy achievement and will make a concrete difference in the lives of a great many college students investing in their futures.
New York, New York