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The College Money Crisis – The New York Times


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The coronavirus has caused severe budget problems for American higher education. But many colleges’ financial troubles are much larger than the virus. They have been building for years and stem, above all, from a breakdown in this country’s hodgepodge system of paying for higher education.

Given the importance of higher education — for scientific research, entrepreneurship and ultimately American living standards — I want to use today’s newsletter to talk about this breakdown.

The current system arose after World War II and depended on three sources of money: students (and their parents); the federal government; and state governments. Of those, state governments were supposed to provide the most money. That’s why many Americans attend something known as a state college.

Over time, though, state officials came to a realization. If they cut their higher-education budgets, colleges could make up the shortfall by raising tuition. Many other state-funded programs, like health care, highways, prisons and K-12 education, have no such alternative.

“In every economic downturn since the 1980s, states have disproportionately cut college and university budgets,” Kevin Carey writes in a new Washington Monthly article that offers an exceptionally clear description of the problem. Since 2008, states have cut inflation-adjusted per-student spending by 13 percent, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

These budget cuts have left most colleges struggling for resources, even as elite colleges, both private and public, can raise substantial revenue from tuition and alumni donations. Not surprisingly, inequality in higher education has grown. Many poor and middle-class students who excel in high school attend colleges with inadequate resources and low graduation rates — and end up with student debt but no degree.

And research repeatedly shows that college matters: Graduates are more likely than nongraduates to be employed, to earn good salaries, to be happy and to live long lives.

The decline in state support for higher education is unlikely to reverse itself, and most middle-class families can’t easily afford to pay rapidly rising tuition bills. That leaves the federal government. A central question, then, is whether it will step in — or whether a college education will become ever more of a luxury good.

Potential solutions: Joe Biden has proposed a big expansion of federal support for higher education, which would make college free for any family earning less than $125,000 a year. President Trump does not have a plan to make college less expensive.

Carey, who works at the New America think tank, argues that Biden’s plan sends too much money to elite colleges that don’t need it. Carey instead proposes a new federal program in which colleges — including community and technical colleges — could choose to receive more funding in exchange for charging a simple, affordable tuition.

Robert Redfield, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Congress that universal mask-wearing could bring the pandemic under control within a few months. Redfield also said vaccines might not be available for most Americans until the middle of 2021.

Hours later, Trump rebuked Redfield, questioning the value of masks and saying a vaccine would be available to the public more quickly. Public health experts said it was the latest example of the president giving false or misleading information about the coronavirus.

Other virus news:

  • The Big Ten reversed its decision to call off the football season after coming under intense pressure from coaches, players, fans and Trump.

  • An experimental drug based on the antibody of a Covid-19 patient appears to be effective in treating the virus, the drug’s maker, Eli Lilly, announced. Independent experts have not yet vetted the research.

To retake the Senate, Democrats need to win five out of the 12 competitive races this year (and also take the vice presidency, which breaks Senate ties). Yesterday, the party got some good news in three state polls.

The Democratic nominees hold significant leads in Maine and Arizona. In South Carolina, a heavily Republican state, the race between Senator Lindsey Graham and his Democratic challenger, Jaime Harrison, is tied.

How to make sense of these numbers? The Times has created a new page where Nate Cohn, one of our polling experts, will be analyzing the latest polls every day. The page also contains charts tracking the presidential polls.

Many states have tax systems that are regressive: They take a greater share of income from the poor than the rich. And because a disproportionate share of the richest taxpayers are white, these state tax systems also widen racial wealth gaps.

In Illinois, for example, the lowest-earning fifth of the population pays 14.4 percent of its income in state and local taxes, according to a new study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. The middle-earning fifth pays 12.6. The highest-earning 1 percent of residents pays 7.4 percent.

This year, Illinoisans will vote on whether to change this system, through a constitutional amendment to authorize a more progressive tax, called the Fair Tax. It would cut taxes for the 97 percent of residents who make less than $250,000 in taxable income — and raise taxes for the remaining 3 percent, according to the study. If the Fair Tax had been in place over the past two decades, it would have effectively transferred $50 billion in wealth from this richest 3 percent to everyone else.

Make the most of end-of-season tomatoes with this flavorful risotto. Once you master the basic technique, the variations are endless. Basil, red peppers or corn all make great additions.

This fall is the 30th anniversary of “Goodfellas,” the Martin Scorsese classic that came out the same year as several other gangster movies, including “Miller’s Crossing” and “The Godfather Part III.”

Most gangster movies focus on the big bosses and godfathers; “Goodfellas” and its descendants — including “Boogie Nights” and “Pulp Fiction” — are about the grinders, the middlemen, the working-class thugs. Read more about the influential mob movies of 1990.

The world’s most prestigious cycling race, the Tour de France, is in its final week, with some 500 miles of racing left. The race has chugged along despite early concerns that it could trigger new waves of virus infections.

“Fans of the Tour have been scarcer on the sides of the road, and selfies and autographs are forbidden,” The Times’s Elian Peltier writes. “For the most part, the stringent protocols put in place to keep the 2020 edition safe appear to be working.”

Basketball confinement: The Times’s sports reporter Marc Stein spent 54 days in the N.B.A. bubble — largely in a 314-square-foot hotel room. This is the gear he couldn’t live without.

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