Political Campaigns And Student Debt

Wealthy people gain political influence by making large campaign contributions. The opposite is also true. Those who do not fund office-seekers can expect to be disregarded at decision-making time.

This political precept is particularly applicable when it comes to young people and students.

Survey data do not exist to indicate how much money young people contribute to political campaigns. But we do know that far fewer of them make contributions of any size than is the case for older people. In 2012 (the last year for which data are available) 7 percent of people 21 years or younger donated to political campaigns. That percentage for people older than 21 was more than double - 15 percent.

With that the case, it is not surprising that issues of importance to those under 21 will be neglected. Because students do not provide campaign funds, support by state and local governments for something very important to them - higher education - is accorded a low priority. During the recent recession, funds for higher education were drastically cut. Even today, after some recovery has occurred, state spending per student is 18 percent lower than it was at the beginning of the recession.

It might be argued that this decline is a short-term phenomenon associated with the near collapse of the economy. But the fact is that the retreat from public support for higher education predates the economic downturn. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reports that "in 1988, public colleges and universities received 3.2 times as much revenue from state and local government as they did from students. They now receive about 1.2 times as much from states and localities as from students." (1)

The immediate victims of the decline in government support for higher education are of course young people who want to go to college but who struggle to pay their tuition. Evidence of their difficulty is found in the heavy level of debt that burdens college graduates. Today 60 percent of graduates from public four-year institutions carry an average debt level of $25,500. Student debt totals $1.23 trillion, more than car loans and credit card debt combined.

What is not included in this picture of increasing financial pressure on young people and their families is the number of students who opt out of higher education altogether in order to avoid indebtedness. One study on this subject estimates that there is a one percent decrease in enrollment for every $400 increase in tuition at public institutions.

All of this reflects students' lack of political clout. But students are not alone. Any group that is not a major source of campaign funding lacks a powerful voice in politics and policy-making. Office holders need money to win elections, and those who provide big donations expect, and do, receive more favorable treatment than those who do not.

Inequality, and therefore injustice, is inherent in a privately funded political system like ours. Few have the ability to become big-time campaign donors. As a result, few see their interests at the top of the political agenda. Unless we adopt an alternative to private donations as the way to fund campaigns, we are stuck with a political process that is systemically unfair.

There is an alternative and more egalitarian way of paying for political campaigns. If candidates for office, having established their seriousness, were provided with public funding from government tax revenues, they would no longer be beholden to private funders. They could evaluate and act on policies without having to consider whether the positions they adopt might offend a rich donor, and thereby jeopardize their chances for election or reelection.

In such a setting we would have a real democracy. Policy positions would be debated on their merits rather than being considered through the prism of self-interested wealthy individuals.

To avoid first amendment complications, this system would have to be voluntary. It would also have to be generous. There is no point in adopting a structure that does not provide enough money for a publicly funded candidate to run a viable campaign. But with adequate funding, a candidate would be provided with a ready-made argument against his or her opponent: "I represent all the people while my opponent represents his or her funders."

In a publicly funded democracy, students would be able to make the case for more government investment in education, and do so as equals with those who seek cutbacks. They might not win, but their concerns would at least be given a fair hearing.

In fact, in an unbiased system, students and their families probably would win. In a world of increasing economic competition, raising the level of the educational attainment of young Americans is necessary for the future prosperity of our country. We should be making it easier to secure higher education, rather than as at present, making it more difficult.

With a privately funded political system, this obvious way to strengthen the United States economy gets lost in the rush for campaign donations.

(1) This quotation and all of the data on education in this essay come from Michael Mitchell, Michael Leachman and Kathleen Masterson, "Funding Down, Tuition Up: State Cuts to Higher Education Threaten Quality and Affordability at Public Colleges," Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Updated August 15, 2016.