September 16, 2016

Obstacles to higher ed--and the middle class

This op-ed of mine appeared in yesterday's Charleston Gazette-Mail:

I first started attending Marshall University a while back, sometime between the extinction of the dinosaurs and the most recent ice age. It really was a different world.

At the time, I was working part-time as a janitor at a local public library (writing being a fairly recent innovation at the time). I found it to be a congenial calling I pursued with something less than perfect diligence, although it vastly contributed to my appreciation for the poetry of Langston Hughes and the like.

Imagine this: After a couple of part-time paychecks, I had enough money to pay for tuition.

Like I said, it was a different world.

Since then, inequality has exploded to levels not seen since the eve of the Great Depression, college costs have risen astronomically as the federal and state governments shifted priorities, student debt has exploded and hardships have mounted for students from low-income families.

Just how many hardships students face was documented in an interesting research project in Wisconsin. A team of researchers led by Sara Goldrick-Rab, author of the new book “Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream,” studied 3,000 students who received Pell Grants while attending the state’s public colleges and universities.

They started out full of hope and enthusiasm but, six years later, fewer than half had graduated and 90 percent of those who did had debt.

In an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Goldrick-Rab summarized the finding of her research:

 Federal student aid gets it wrong, by overestimating what families can pay and underestimating the cost of education.

 Contrary to stereotypes of families supporting children, “low-income children are supporting their parents, grandparents, and even siblings, all while being unable to buy their books.”

 Many are going without adequate food and, sometimes, shelter.

 While there’s nothing new about students working, many low-income students today are either looking for jobs they can’t find or holding down as many as three to get by.

 Debt, and its shadow, impact education, as well: “Feeling forced into borrowing is contributing to stress during college. To make money through work and minimize their loan exposure, students sacrifice participation in the sorts of academic and social activities that build networks and learning, the kinds of activities than increase the economic returns of their degrees.”

The real kicker is that the evidence suggests that academic success comes down to money: “Price, not intellect or effort, is the primary sorting mechanism in today’s colleges ... . Time after time, the failure to complete college does not reflect intellectual inability but rather an inability to pay.”

I’ve often had conversations with West Virginians who were stranded, unable to graduate and saddled with debt they had trouble paying on low wages and no benefits, which, in turn, made more education that could lead to a better job more inaccessible.

There’s something messed up about a situation where CEOs and corporations have an easier time dodging promised benefits to workers and retirees than ordinary people do dealing with debt for higher education.

If we’re going to move forward as a nation — let alone as a state that ranks at the bottom in educational attainment — we need to address issue of affordability. But we also need to work together to ensure that those who are trying to move forward can meet the basic needs for food, shelter and safety that make learning possible.

September 14, 2016

Left behind in rural America

There is some good news about incomes nationally. For the first time since 2015, US households saw a decent bump in incomes. However, as this Vox item shows, incomes actually went down in rural areas.  As one of the most rural states (the others are Maine, Vermont and Mississippi), the outlook isn't too good for West Virginia. But you already knew that.

Meanwhile, here's an interesting review by a WV-born writer about a certain demographic group that is getting a lot of ink these days.

September 13, 2016

From the horse's mouth

The city of Huntington is ground zero in WV's opioid crisis. When 26 people there overdosed in a few hours, the story made headlines nationwide. It was nice to see this editorial in that city's Herald-Dispatch about how to respond. Here's bit:

If locking up users and dealers were the "silver bullet," we would have won the war on drugs years ago. Largely because of tougher penalties for drugs, the American prison population rose from 400,000 in the 1970s to record levels of 2.3 million in recent years....
Local, state and federal government has spent billions fighting drugs for the past 50 years. A reasonable investment in prevention, treatment and recovery is long overdue.
The rest is here.

This is a much more productive approach than more mandatory minimums as proposed by Republican candidate for governor Bill Cole.

September 12, 2016

Three for a Monday

I don't always agree with conservative broadcaster Hoppy Kercheval, but I'm totally down with him on this one. In this commentary, he calls for passage of the Miners Protection Act, which would help prop up promised pension benefits for miners from the Abandoned Mine Lands program. After being held up for years by senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, it seems to be finally gaining traction. I think this is a put up or shut up moment for those who pretend to care about miners.

From last week's Gazette, here's a piece by physician and Republican delegate Matthew Rohrbach supporting a state earned income tax credit. My solution  to the state's budget crisis, not that anyone cares, would be to increase some taxes and offset any regressive effect on low income families with a state EITC.

Finally, former state supreme court justice Richard Neely argues here that there are several good reasons for WV to legalize marijuana,  not all of which are related to taxes and budgets. Or Cheetos.