The State of Our Union


By Elizabeth Schuelke, MSPPM ‘13

“Higher education can’t be a luxury. It’s an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.” – President Obama, State of the Union January 24, 2012


President Obama boldly declared in his 2012 ‘State of the Union’ address to Congress, we (that’s you, fellow Heinz student) are a generation of Americans who, “owe more in tuition debt than credit card debt.” This juxtaposition is not a mere testament to the success of our age set to outmaneuver the hidden 30% interest rates of MegaBank, but a further reaffirmation of the extreme burden placed on young people to single-handedly fund increasingly steep tuition rates.


Students across the country now owe a staggering $1 trillion dollars in debt and most still struggle to land a decent job. The question needs to be addressed how a new generation can launch burdened with debt equal to a house or a pair of Beyonce’s leggings. President Obama, then Candidate, campaigned on the promises of increased funding for Pell grants and a program which would trade service for tuition assistance. Yet, four years later, students are watching as tuition increases over 5% annually with no real relief in sight.


While Obama recently made ambitious promises to help alleviate the burden of repayment through reduced payments and forgiveness after a determined period of time, it is sidestepping the driving force behind crushing student debt. My mother loves to remind me that during the 1970s, the federal grants funded a large part of her college education. I remember the first time I was awarded a Pell Grant and it barely covered the cost of books. The Government, as Obama pointed out, has shifted away from higher education as a priority and has over the decades stripped state and federal funding from students.

This is an issue of particular importance to us here at the Heinz College. We are not only subject to incredible debt to further our education,  but as future policy makers we should be the force behind illuminating what created this situation and providing the insight necessary to reverse its trajectory.


During the economic crisis, states across the country put higher education funding front and center on the chopping block. On average, states cut 10% of their funding for higher education, resulting in billions of dollars fewer than previous years. New Hampshire made an example of itself and cut a whopping 41% of its higher education budget.  At the same time, America is falling behind in training enough skilled workers for the jobs available. Made in America, is simply not an option for many companies as other countries, which prioritize higher education, outpace us.


Looking down the barrel of several tens of thousands of dollars in student loans (Go Tartans!), I would like to see an old-fashioned ‘put your money where your mouth is’ approach. Obama says taxpayers will stop funding schools that continue to raise tuition? Great! Now back up that promise with a bold push toward increased federal and state funding for higher education. Enact measures which reduce cumbersome bureaucracy in colleges and universities, and hold our elected officials accountable for supporting proposals which cut students struggling to pay for college a financial break. Our leaders should encourage Americas’ youth to take the risk of getting the skills needed. Instead, we are now a society which frightens off many of our most talented students who wish to avoid being saddled with decades of student loan repayments.


If Facebook can launch a revolution and Wikipedia can flip an 80-31 support of SOPA into a 65-101 opposition in 24 hours, I am confident the clever minds within the illustrious halls of Hamburg can bring this issue to the forefront of American discourse. Exorbitant student loans shouldn’t be seen as an entrenched cost of getting a higher education, instead we should demand affordable higher education as a right for every American student.


For those feeling a little overwhelmed by the sheer mass of content and partisan heckling, here is a cheat sheet for navigating the waters of Obama’s 75 minute address to congress.