A member of the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. was the featured speaker at Loyola Marymount University June 15 in a wide-ranging discussion on post-secondary education.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of Postsecondary Education Eduardo Ochoa spoke before an audience of educators and college and university administrators on topics that included college affordability and student financial aid.
The assistant secretary said President Barack Obama believes increasing the number of college graduates is the best way to make the nation stronger and more productive.
“We need 10 million more graduates of college by 2020 in order to be successful in the coming years,” Ochoa told the audience.
The meeting was organized by officials from the White House and the Department of Education, and is one of a series of events nationwide to discuss proposed changes to student aid and to solicit feedback from university officials on proposals to reform federal financial aid and student support programs.
At community colleges as well as at several California universities, students have staged protests, sit-ins and a variety of civil disobedience actions in reaction to the soaring costs of tuition.
At Santa Monica College, administrators ran head first into a wall of student resistance in April when its Board of Trustees proposed a two-tier tuition system that would have cost summer students $180 per unit for English, mathematics and science, which tend to be some of the most highly sought-after courses.
The trustees rescinded plans for the pilot program as the story garnered national headlines after a series of student protests that culminated in a pepper-spraying incident by college police.
In an exclusive interview with The Argonaut, Ochoa said the Obama administration is aware of the tumult and anger that the rise in tuition has ushered in over the last few years.
“I think that young people are absolutely justified in feeling the way that they do,” he said. “My generation was able to go to school when education was much more affordable.”
SMC Associated Students President Harrison Wills said summer and winter sessions would become only contract education if the trustees’ plan had been implemented.
“It’s a dangerous slippery slope, and as a precautionary, principled person, and as someone who is concerned with equity in our society, we don’t go down that road,” he said. “We fund our schools, and this is the wrong solution.
“It’s a reactionary solution and a short-term one and it doesn’t look at long-term solutions.”
Student loans and tuition have of late become part of the political game in Washington, where a debate on whether to lower the interest rate on federally backed loans is a subject of heated debate in Congress.
Earlier this year, Senate Republicans blocked a bill offered by their Democratic counterparts that would have prevented interest rates from doubling before the end of the fiscal year, which ends on July 1.
Partisan politics, political gamesmanship and party ideology are the primary reasons for the stalemate. Republicans say they would like to lower rates but favor eliminating a preventive health care fund that is part of the Affordable Care Act, passed by Congress in 2010.
Democrats want to finance the $6 billion measure by boosting Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes on high-earning stockholders of some privately owned corporations.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said recently that time is running out for Congress to act and allow interest rates to remain at 3.4 percent next year.
“Congress has been fairly dysfunctional…but this is a real opportunity for them to come together and do the right thing,” Duncan told The Daily Ticker, a Yahoo financial blog on June 19.
Westchester resident Gail Levy, who has a daughter that recently graduated from college and another who is a sophomore, said last year was the first year that she and her husband took out loans for their daughters’ education.
Levy, whose children attended Westchester High School (now Westchester Enriched Science Magnet High School), said the issue of student loans has been a topic of discussion among her friends who also have young adults in college.
“It’s mainly about the fear of the interest rates doubling, coupled with the fact that many graduates aren’t finding jobs,” she said.
According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, private and public student loan debt is approaching $1 billion, which exceeds the total amount of credit card debt among American consumers.
Ochoa is dismayed that college affordability and the interest rate on student loans have become fraught with political overtones. “Both the government and the household sector understand that in this economy you need to have more education,” he said.
“There is a greater number of students who are going into higher education so there is a greater demand for financial assistance.”
Ochoa named a state proposition that has been shrouded in controversy for more than three decades as one of the principal culprits for the defunding of education statewide and one that has become untouchable to the majority of California politicians: Proposition 13.
The 1978 ballot initiative limited the maximum tax rate on real estate to 1 percent of its full cash value. The loss of property tax revenue has forced local governments to turn to other strategies such as parcel taxes and raising sales taxes to pay for public infrastructure, including schools.
Ochoa, who is an economist, said there are other fine points about the proposition of which many people are unaware.
“Some people don’t know all of the details about Prop. 13. In 1978, older residents on fixed income were being priced out of their homes,” the assistant secretary explained. “That was the group that was supposed to benefit.”
Ochoa noted that Prop. 13 covered both residential as well as commercial properties and commercial properties carry what he calls an “insidious clause.”
When a property changes hands, it can be reassessed. “But for commercial property, an owner can transfer up to one-third ownership in any year without triggering a reassessment,” Ochoa explained.
“And most properties in California are sold over a three-year period, so they avoid reassessment,” he added. “So essentially, we have untold billions of dollars of lost revenue to the state because of this loophole that has basically sheltered all real estate property from reassessment.”
Burgeoning employee pension and benefits are also contributing to states’ inability to pay for higher education, Ochoa said.
A recent PBS special on former California Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown centered around how the late governor, the father of current California governor Jerry Brown, transformed the Golden State’s education system – particularly its community college, California State and University of California systems – into the envy of the other 49 states more than 50 years ago.
In the 1960s and 70s, California was near the top in funding education. Today, it ranks among the bottom five in the nation.
“I’m a big fan of Pat Brown and the work that he did,” stated Ochoa, who met the former governor when he was a member of the Pat G. Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State-Northridge.
Ochoa also credited former Republican Gov. Warren Burger for jumpstarting the push toward making education more accessible and affordable to Californians.
The work of these two former state executives is evidence to Ochoa that politics should not be an encumbrance to improving education.
“Between the two of them across their two governorships they created a bipartisan framework for the growth and the dynamism of the California economy,” he said.
Presidents and administrators from LMU and Otis College of Art and Design in Westchester were among the schools and universities that attended the event.