There were no clear winners in the federal debt ceiling deal reached last Tuesday. Everything was on the table for cuts — including education. National legislators eliminated the interest subsidy for a government-subsidized loan program for graduate and professional students. But in a bittersweet compromise, the cut allowed the maximum award for the federally funded Pell Grant program to persist.
The Pell Grant is important for a large number of students at the University of California, where approximately 40 percent of undergraduate students are eligible to receive the award. The preservation of the grant is crucial as an undergraduate degree is becoming less attainable due to financial restraints. Thus its survival is a victory, although a minor one, for students. However, it is difficult to feel relief because the grant was saved at the cost of eliminating the interest subsidy for the Stafford graduate loan program.
Unfortunately, the political circumstances surrounding the debt deal — namely federal cuts without the option of increased revenue — made it clear that the tiers of higher education would have to be prioritized. In this case, the priority was rightly given to undergraduate education, which is becoming necessary even for the lowest paying skilled jobs.
Though an undergraduate education is necessary, it is becoming increasingly obvious that it alone cannot grow the American economy. In order to remain competitive in the future, graduate degrees are becoming more necessary. However, the national government has joined California’s legislature in disinvesting in that very future. As the prestige of an undergraduate degree wanes, students look to graduate degrees to remain competitive in the globalized marketplace. And since graduate and professional schools are generally more expensive than an undergraduate education, the elimination of the interest subsidy is undoubtedly a setback for the American economy and the country’s ability to remain competitive.
For any level of government, education is a unique expenditure. It is difficult to imagine a time when cutting education amounts to a long-term, responsible decision. While it certainly saves money in the here and now, cutting education means dismantling the creative, productive and competitive potential of America.