No money where our mouth is

The cost of attending public college in Georgia has risen by 48 percent since 2010, the second-highest rate of increase in the country and behind only Louisiana, according to data released earlier this month by the Urban Institute.

So the next time you hear state leaders explain that a high-quality, well-educated workforce is critical to our state’s future, think about that tuition increase. Think about how much more difficult it is becoming for young people and families to pay for college. Think about the fact that, according to the Urban Institute, Georgia is one of only two states in the country that provides no college assistance based on financial need.

Is that the behavior of a state committed to opportunity for all of its students?

And why is tuition rising so quickly? Some like to argue it’s rising thanks to government action, and they’re right, although not for the reason they claim. They say tuition is rising because government subsidizes it. I suspect it’s rising for the opposite reason — because since 2001, state funding per college student has been cut in half after adjusting for inflation. We spent the equivalent of $14,947 per student in 2001, and we spent $7,031 in fiscal 2015.

Somebody has to make up that gap between the lip service we pay to the necessity of a good education, and the action we as a state actually take.

I’m thinking that these are not good trends. And when you remember that according to federal data, Georgia students have the highest average college debt of any state in the country, I’m thinking maybe all of these things are related. (That most of the new jobs being created in this state are low-wage service jobs, and that the median hourly wage in this state has fallen in the past decade, might also be related).

Then there’s our k-12 system, the bedrock of our future as a state, as families, businesses and individuals. After years of slow but steady improvement in the National Assessment of Educational Performance, the so-called “gold standard” of national testing, the performance of Georgia students declined in the newly released NAEP data. Why?

Maybe it’s just a coincidence the downturn has occurred among the cohort of students whose academic careers began as we laid off thousands of teachers and sliced days off the school year to save money. Maybe, just maybe, those missing teachers actually performed a necessary function.

Other states met the challenge of the recession by digging a little deeper to keep teachers on the payroll and keep school doors open. Georgia leaders considered it more important to maintain our standing as the state with the lowest per capita tax revenue; the economic development folks just love to cite that stat. And to make matters worse, the cuts made as a result of the recession came on top of hundreds of millions of so-called “austerity cuts” to education back when times were better.

For many years now, the state has failed to fund education to the levels its own formula said was necessary. Officials are now revamping that formula so that it asks even less of the state. You know the trick: If you can’t meet the standard, lower the standard. It’s what we do.