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Graduation 2004: Pomp and Crummy Circumstances

The rising cost of higher-education has morphed the American Dream into the Dystopian Nightmare.
 
 
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It's that time. And I'm not talking about cicadas. It's graduation time, and all across the country high school seniors are tossing their mortarboards into the air and heading off to face a future filled with hope, promise -- and soaring college tuition and fees.

It's one of the few areas in which the Bush administration really has taken the country to a higher level.

The cost of a college education at a four-year public university has risen a devastating 35 percent since George W. Bush took office. He promised to be "the education president," but in what we now know to be the classic Bush bait and switch, he then did just the opposite, delivering a tax-slashing economic agenda that forced public colleges and universities in all but one state to raise tuition in 2003.

As an added little gift for the new grads, the Bush administration's latest budget-cutting guidelines will lead to a $550 million reduction in federal assistance to those college students in need of financial aid.

Happy graduation, kids! Enjoy your decades of indebtedness -- at least those of you who are not forced to forego college altogether.

How did we get to the point as a society where low taxes are more important than providing the opportunity for as many of our children as possible to get a higher education? Where we would rather shut students out of college classrooms than shut down the tax shelters that are costing states billions in revenue each year?

Nowhere are these perverted priorities on greater display than in California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is steadfastly refusing even to consider closing corporate tax loopholes or raising taxes on the top 1 percent -- even in the face of a multibillion-dollar budget deficit. Instead, he is looking to balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable -- including the state's college students.

He has put forth a budget proposal that would, among other things, slash $660 million from the state's public colleges and universities, increase undergraduate tuition over the next three years by more than 30 percent (this on top of a 40 percent tuition increase since 2002), deny admission to 25,000 qualified students, cut financial aid, lead to larger class sizes and fewer course offerings, and eliminate state support for outreach programs that help prepare disadvantaged students for college.

Other than that, it's very education-friendly.

How we respond to this draconian hatchet blow to the heart and soul of California's longstanding commitment to higher education will tell us a lot about ourselves. It will help define what kind of a state and country we want to live in -- and what kind of society we will leave to our children.

Has the American Dream been replaced by a Dystopian Nightmare? Has the Land of Opportunity morphed into the Land of "I Got Mine, Who Cares About Yours"?

After relentlessly and rightly impressing on the young people of America the idea that a college education is the doorway to the jobs of the future, will we reward their years of hard work by slamming that door in the face of tens of thousands of them -- including many who graduated near the top of their class?

It would be a dreadfully shortsighted and ultimately destructive move. Allowing higher education to become harder and harder to afford is not only hurting students -- it is damaging America's long-term economic prospects.

Today a college education is no longer a luxury, it's a necessity. It's the source of our future employment base and it's what will allow us to remain competitive in the global marketplace. On average, college grads earn $1 million more over their lifetime than students who don't continue their education past high school. In other words, penny-wise, pound-foolish.

But it's not just a matter of dollars and cents. Education is an essential part of the well-being of our democracy. People who are undereducated often feel unequipped to participate in the political process.

The good news is that there is still time to stop this bloodletting. The question is: Will Democratic leaders in Sacramento have the necessary backbone?

In Washington, it took three years of Bush walkover victories and the insurgency of Howard Dean to give national Democrats the spine transplant they so desperately needed.

Back in California, it's the students themselves who are providing the mettle: Over the last six months, a student-led movement has spearheaded the protest against cutting the rungs in the ladder of opportunity. They've marched, lobbied, signed petitions and gone to jail.

While barnstorming college campuses around the state last month with State Treasurer Phil Angelides, who has proven to be a true leader in this cause, I was inspired and impressed by the students' passion and refusal to accept the idea that denying them an education is an acceptable way to solve the state's fiscal crisis.

It's time for the rest of us to join them atop the moral high ground and demand that our leaders stop sacrificing America's college students -- and the public interest -- while protecting the narrow interests of those at the top. What kind of America do we want to live in? There's still time to decide.

Find more Arianna at Ariannaonline.com.