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Rush Limbaugh is Wrong About Rising College Costs--But So Are Most Politicians

Rising college tuitions and student loan debt are a part of the broader war on workers, not a consequence of misguided liberal policies.

 Recently two competing ideas about college tuition were making the rounds. Fareed Zakaria, focusing on incarceration rates, noted that:

In 2011, California spent $9.6 billion on prisons, versus $5.7 billion on higher education. Since 1980, California has built one college campus; it's built 21 prisons. The state spends $8,667 per student per year. It spends about $50,000 per inmate per year.

Also, Rush Limbaugh went on a typical rant about student loan debt and tuition rates. I'm pretty sure Limbaugh is being sarcastic when he says birth control is one reason for student loan debt. Because, see, Sandra Fluke and others cited the cost of birth control as a reason it's important for it to be covered as free preventive care, so it's hilarious, in Rush-land, to act as if the cost of birth control accounts for debt on the much larger cost of college.

But Rush is definitely serious that liberals should be blamed for student loan debt, and the problem is, too much of his basic account is taken seriously. Not the birth control part, but his real explanation. It appears that his argument is that student loan debt is growing because, first, 1965. The federal student loan program was started in 1965, and what else originated in 1965? Medicare, Medicaid, and other "rotgut." Second, Rush says that President Obama "directly controls" student loans. I'm guessing he's talking here about the fact that the Student Aid and Financial Responsibility Act cut out the middleman on federal student loans, taking subsidies away from lenders and increasing the amount of funding available to students. Which, quelle horreur.

But the final word on student loan debt, per Rush, is that:

Tuition's increasing far faster than the rate of inflation. Yeah, and who's in charge of this? Liberals. Lifting student debt higher? Isn't the rising cost of tuition like the whole problem, other than the birth control pills? Yet there's never any criticism from Obama or the Democrats or the news media about colleges and how greedy they are.

So the problem—the whole explanation for more than $1 trillion in student loan debt—is that liberals are in charge and colleges are greedy. Not that Rush Limbaugh deserves to be seriously fact-checked, but college tuition costs and the student loan debt that results are important topics, and Rush's explanation is basically just a crude distillation of Republican policy. What is going on here, then?

Well, some colleges are greedy. That would be a solid slice of your for-profit colleges, which aggressively recruit students, charge higher tuitions than public colleges, have high drop-out rates, and produce nearly half of all federal student loan defaults despite only enrolling around 10 percent of students. But to Rush, that's likely the sacrosanct private market.

What about public colleges and universities? It's true, tuition has gone up— rising 8.3 percent at four-year schools, on average, in 2011. That's because tuition plugs the gap when state appropriations fall short of covering the costs of educating students, and in 2010, per-student public higher education funding fell to a 25-year low (PDF). Then it fell again in 2011. Since the 1980s, at the same time as a college degree was becoming more essential to making your way into the middle class, the cost of college was falling more on students, with tuition steadily increasing as a share of revenue for public colleges and universities.

Between 2006 and 2011, 43 states decreased per-student funding, and in 17 the drop was greater than 20 percent. During that five-year period, even with increasing tuitions, total per-student revenue dropped in 26 states. So the biggest part of the public higher education tuition story is that more people are going to college and state funding is not keeping pace.

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