On Friday, Sen. John Cornyn R-Texas spoke with UT law students at the LBJ School of Public Affairs about the problems the growing public debt poses for the U.S. The Daily Texan sat down with Senator Cornyn to discuss how these problems could affect higher education at UT and elsewhere.
The Daily Texan: Why did you feel it was important to warn UT law students about the debt crisis?
Sen. John Cornyn: Because students are going to have to pay the bill. [The debt is] roughly $48,000 per every man, woman and child in America right now, and all we need to do to see where this is going is to look across the Atlantic at Europe and see the sovereign debt crises over there. The bills are stacking up and creditors are doubting whether these governments can actually pay their debt. Obviously, this is creating a lot of turmoil there, a recession right now, and it could very well spill into the United States.
DT: So how would the debt crisis affect the quality and availability of higher education in the U.S. if left unsolved?
Sen. Cornyn: It’s going to reduce the amount of money that we can spend on anything, including education. [The debt is a result] of a lot of things the federal government does, for example the expansion of Medicaid availability from 100 percent of poverty to 133 percent of poverty. That’s a sheared state/federal bill and what it does is put $27 billion of unfunded liabilities on the state government, crowding out other priorities such as education.
DT: Does decreasing federal spending to resolve the debt mean that the federal government will have to find new ways to support public education?
Sen. Cornyn: I think budgeting is all about priorities. Clearly education is a priority. Most of it is funded at the state level, about 90 percent for K-12, and as you know a lot of students have to borrow money to fund their education. The President talked about that at his State of the Union. The problem is that education funding should be a priority, but there are a lot of things we are spending money on now that could be spent on education and other priorities.
DT: So what are those unneeded expenditures?
Sen. Cornyn: Some of it is as simple as duplication of services. I was talking in Admiral Inman’s class a moment ago about job training. It’s something that he said is a government function, and I agree with him. We need to help people acquire the skills needed in order to get a job, but right now there are 40 different federal programs that provide job training. Obviously, I would argue there is a lot of duplication and a lot of inefficiency. Some of it is that. Some of it is simply reining in some tax expenditures, things like the ethanol subsidy. I would also encourage people to look at the Simpson Bowls Report that came out in December 2010, called “Moment of Truth”. They said we had about 1.1 trillion dollars in tax expenditures that are currently increasing the deficit, which could instead go into people’s pockets if certain provisions in the tax code were eliminated. That would go along way.
DT: What can UT and other universities do to keep college open to everyone as tuition rates and student debts continue to rise? What role does the government have in that?
Sen. Cornyn: In my way of thinking it’s simply unacceptable to deny people access to college in this economy. We know that if people finish high school, wait to get married and if they wait to have children that their chances of joining the middle class and not being poor are much better. We haven’t had a federal budget in more than a 1000 days now, and what happens when you have a budget, whether it be a small business or government, is that you have to make hard decisions. We have to decide: what are the things you have to have, like education, what are the things you would like to have, and what is not necessary. The federal government has not been making those kinds of decisions and we need to.
DT: Is there a role that the government needs to take to ensure that education remains inclusive? Especially in a state like Texas, which has a quickly growing population.
Sen. Cornyn: I would say we need to do a better job in reaching out to everybody in making sure that education is available to all. We have challenges, the drop out rate and things like that, but we can create a great system of community colleges that teach skills that are necessary for jobs that exist but for which there’s not a quality, trained workforce. This needs to remain at the top of our list of priorities. This is something that we are never going to be able to say we’re done with, and that it’s fixed.
DT: What advice do you have for students preparing for jobs in an economy projected to have notably lower growth outcomes than the previous generation?
Sen. Cornyn: Well I would say don’t accumulate any more debt. Unfortunately the federal government took over all student loans in 2010, and this summer will start charging 6.8 percent on those loans. The cost of those loans is actually much lower, and the government is using the cost from those loans to fund other programs, like the health care bill. It doesn’t seem quite fair that students should have to bear that additional cost. I would say look for opportunities to complete your formal education in a shorter rather than a longer period of time. Even though Pell grants are available for 9 years, if you can do it in 5 years you can save a whole lot of money and that’s going to make it easier for you to do with that student debt, and for the countries debt.