Opinion: Taxpayers have long funded ‘someone else’s education’

Matthew Boedy is president of the Georgia conference of the American Association of University Professors. He is an associate professor at the University of North Georgia.

In this guest column, Boedy discusses the misinformation and misdirection in the debate over President Joe Biden’s plan to erase some student loan debt.

By Matthew Boedy

Soon after President Joe Biden announced his plan to address the student loan debt crisis last week, an interesting talking point surfaced in response. I saw it in many tweets and also in a reply on my Facebook wall from my aunt who is a retired elementary school teacher: We shouldn’t be paying for someone else’s education.

Donald Trump Jr., former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are only a few of the many who spread this claim on Twitter. Even the conservative humor site the Babylon Bee got into the act with a post headlined “Hard-Working Plumber Looking Forward To Paying For His Neighbor’s Gender Studies Degree.”

The argument is a bad-faith claim. First, trade school students take out loans. Second, we taxpayers have been paying for “someone else’s education” at all levels for a long, long time. State constitutions around the nation command states to provide primary and secondary education. And of course the origin story of publicly funded higher education lies in land-grant colleges.

Credit: Peggy Cozart

Credit: Peggy Cozart

The know-betters claiming student loan debt relief is unfair to welders because they are paying for someone else’s education ignore the fact that we all have been paying for that education, just less and less. You may have heard that for decades state budget writers across the United States have slowly but surely pulled back on higher education. And then the 2008 recession hit, pushing tuition and fees higher.

In Georgia, we have remained lucky with our flagship school budgets receiving 50% or so of their budgets from state appropriations. And the smaller schools have a better ratio. But the University System of Georgia only recently ended a special institutional fee that gave schools millions begun in 2009 that UGA called “a critical component of” its budget. And the system only ended that fee because it got more money from the state.

This tax-and-spending element hides the claim’s implicit attack on higher education as an education. You can see it in that Babylon Bee headline. And DeSantis echoed it: “It’s unfair to force a truck driver to pay a loan for someone who got a Ph.D. in gender studies.” He added “gender studies” is a worthless degree.

From there, the discourse got goofy as people started making up college majors. For example, “cat gender studies” is not an undergraduate major. And, despite what Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert thinks, “lesbian dance theory” is also not a college major. Though I do applaud the creativity of Christian Walker, Herschel’s adult son, who claimed “Medieval Gender Studies” grads are unemployed. They are indeed unemployed because they don’t exist.

For the record, the college degree of “area, ethnic, cultural, gender & group studies” awarded 0.4% of the 2 million college degrees awarded in 2019-2020.

The larger debate about worthy college degrees is not new. I am an English professor, I know. There is a reason that I majored in journalism 20 years ago, not English.

Now, though, we have data to debunk the myths about English and other “worthless” majors. Our university system has offered a limited but important look at what graduates from our state schools make in the years after they leave campus. The data is limited because it only includes those who work within the state and who work for a state or local business, not the federal government or the military. And of course I will add that the direct line between a “good paying job” and a college major is a myth.

First, in terms of majors, gender studies is not quite the right label. Georgia State offers a bachelor’s degree in “Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.” One student who the school spotlighted on its website had dropped out of college as a business major, unfulfilled and with no intention of going back. But now she says “one of the most useful lessons” she learned in the program is “that college is more than just a pathway to securing a career, but a holistic and lifetime endeavor to critical and creative thinking…”

Contrary to some tweets, women’s studies graduates are employed and after a few years, make good money. The USG data notes that after 10 years, these graduates are making about $60,000 on average. The UGA Women’s Studies website lists several companies and organizations their graduates work for, including the Red Cross, the Girl Scouts, and the U.S. Census Bureau.

Nurses only do a bit better, making about $72,000 on average at that same time marker. And while the business degree has multiple listings in the data, the “general” business bachelor’s degree graduate makes about $60,000 a decade out. Ten years post graduation, English majors make nearly $50,000.

Those numbers might surprise you. Maybe social media doesn’t give you a full picture of college majors. And maybe your nostalgia for your own college days — when perhaps you used a part-time job to pay tuition and graduated with little to no debt — limits your understanding of the current crisis. Maybe you should check out “cost of attendance” at the new USG website.

I am not asking you to agree with the debt forgiveness as a policy. But you might consider laying off your child who wants to be an English major.

The author of this guest column, Matthew Boedy, is president of the Georgia conference of the American Association of University Professors.