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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Grading Doyle's college pact: A+

I didn't see Governor Jim Doyle's State of the State; I didn't even read the full transcript. I did, however, get a billion and a half emails from everyone and his sister telling me all the goodies in it. And, of course, walking through the Right Cheddarsphere, I learned via their outrage which parts I'd like best. Doyle's college tuition aid plan got a single line in this morning's Journal Sentinel write-up of the speech, but did warrant a full article Tuesday before the speech. I also knew it would be important since my arch-enemy Owen disliked it intensely.

On the merits, though, the idea deserves a full airing and wide support. From the article:
Under the plan [. . .] eighth-graders would sign a pledge agreeing to maintain at least a B average in high school, take college-prep courses and live a clean life.

If they get accepted to a Wisconsin public university and receive as much financial aid as possible but still can't cover their tuition, the state would pick up what's left with grants or subsidized loans or guarantee the student a work-study job.

Doyle said the plan, modeled after similar programs in Indiana and North Carolina, would help students get into college in the face of ever-increasing bills. [. . .]

The program's details are still in flux, but [UW System President Kevin] Reilly estimated that it would cost the state $5 million to $10 million a year. The UW System would request the money in the state budget, which is subject to legislative approval.
Ten million dollars a year is roughly .04% of the state's annual budget, by the way.

According to Doyle in his address last night, he envisons that, "The neediest families will receive grants to pay the costs of education. Others at slightly higher incomes will get a mix of loan subsidies, grants, and work study. But as long as the student holds up his or her end of the bargain, every family that qualifies for financial aid will get a package that fully covers their tuition." The idea is to find ways to close the gap between the cost of the UW schools students are accepted to and the amount of financial aid provided through the feds.

To make sure we're all clear: This past year, tuition at UW schools about 7%. This is not a surprising increase, given recent history. At present rates, the tuition alone at UW-Milwaukee, for example, will be north of $8700 for an in-state student. Someone working full-time at McDonald's wages (assuming Republicans get their way and hold minimum wage low) would earn only about $12000 anually. Should an 18-year-old have to put in 40 hours a week just to give 3/4 of it to UW for an education?

Okay, I know that if all you got to pay for college is your minimum wage job, you're probably eligible for financial aid--loans, workstudy, and even grants (though Bush and the national Republican party is out to cut grants, you know). But Owen's conservatarian dander is up:
So, in the long run, the taxpayers would be subsidizing much of the student population’s tuition. The student would not have to pay anything out of pocket to cover the cost of school. What effect might this have?

First, the student would no longer have an incentive to work or apply for scholarships to pay for his school. Why work hard in high school to save for college if the government is going to foot the bill? Why fill out those 200 scholarship applications? Furthermore, why would parents bother saving money for their kids’ college? They can blow that money on a boat instead because, after all, the government will be picking up the bill.

Second, more kids would be more likely to slack off in college. When a kid is busting his butt to pay for college, he is more likely to attend more classes, study harder, and graduate sooner. The kids with the free rides are the ones who have 5 senior years.
Let's be clear again: Ain't none of this free rides. The idea is to remove or ease the gap between financial aid and families' ability to pay, and the true cost of a university education. Financial aid--and I speak as someone who got a lot of it and is still, nine years after graduation, paying it back--involves loans, loans, work study, and more loans (except for those endangered grants). The incentive is still there to save and work, both on the parents' end and on the students' end. Some day those loans will come due. Students and parents will still be expected to kick in--only the neediest of families would get anything close to what Owen envisions as a "free ride." For all his talk lately of helping out the poor but motivated students in Milwaukee's voucher program, you'd think Owen would be in favor of exactly this sort of program.

Let me also speak not only as someone who has experience with student loans, but as one who teaches high school students, both high- and low-achieving. On any given day, I work with students who have Governor Doyle's expected 3.0 average and students who've had a good semester if they get a 0.25 average. One thing they all seem to have in common is the notion that they want to go to college. There is no such word as graduate anymore; the word is graduateandgotocollege, just like that. Another thing they all seem to have in common is after-school jobs. Some days, these are the bane of my existence. "Why aren't these essays done?" I can ask of any given class, college-prep or remedial. "I had to work," the class answers back.

"Why do you have a job?" I ask. "Don't you realize that school is your job? What can you possibly need money for?"

"To pay for college," they say. When pressed about how much they have in the bank after all that working, the students--regardless of ability level or actual likelihood of college admission--say not much. Then they look guiltily down at their $100 shoes.

Some students, particularly the students of Hmong immigrant families, do have to work to support the household, and sometimes that can't be helped. But every year, even among my International Baccalaureate students--especially among them!--I see students not working to potential because they are working to buy that prom dress (or tuition).

If those pressures eased, just a little (not to mention if even a few percent more of my students honored a pledge to be college-prep and lead a clean life) my job would be easier, graduation rates higher, and overall GPAs much less embarassing. I know that some conservatives who have criticized the plan--from Owen to Assembly Speaker John Gard--have a stake in keeping the Milwaukee Public Schools worse than they need to be to buttress support for Milwaukee's voucher program. But here Governor Doyle is drawing a very clear finish line that will encourage more students to get there, not just in my high school in Milwaukee, but all across the state.

Let's work toward making that a reality.

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