With an exquisite deed and enormous wealth, the richest black man in America has given our nation something invaluable: an unexpected but much-needed lesson.
By any measure, billionaire Robert F. Smith’s gift last weekend to Morehouse College’s 2019 graduating class -- relief for the students’ college-loan debt -- is philanthropic gold, man helping man. The United States’ college-debt crisis has soared to unprecedented levels, and the founder of Vista Equity Partners is allowing 396 graduates to begin their careers free from financial worries that often stunt young Americans’ careers and dreams.
It also makes Americans who are inclined to seek a college degree to ask: is it worth it?
The problem isn’t debt, per se. The U.S. economy runs on debt -- mortgage payments, car notes, credit cards and, yes, student loans. But student debt in America reached a record $1.465 trillion last year, largely due to the catastrophic rise in college tuition as colleges and public universities receive less state funding and pass fiscal pain to students and their families. The increase in campus housing and meal costs isn’t helping, either. The sticker shock for families of first-year college students is real.
Alabama for too long has exemplified this American dilemma. Our state is among the nation’s poorest. Our state contains several of the nation’s poorest counties. And the affordability of a four-year college degree in our state remains exorbitantly high.
Alabama does a marvelous job of saying what it wants -- a better-trained workforce, an influx of high-wage industries that employ highly educated Alabamians.
Alabama does a terrible job of making that happen.
The good news is as surprising as Robert F. Smith’s gift at Morehouse. Jacksonville State University is one of five schools in our state that didn’t increase tuition for the 2019-2020 academic year. Consider us shocked and gobsmacked. Data from the Alabama Commission on Higher Education show that the median increase for in-state undergraduate students at four-year public schools has been 71 percent over the last decade. Yet, after year after year of sizeable tuition increases, the University of Alabama, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the University of Alabama in Huntsville, the University of Montevallo and JSU are standing pat. For now, at least.
It’s a particularly notable development for JSU, whose campus was ravaged by a tornado in March 2018. Twenty-three university buildings were severely damaged and more than 50 others needed repairs that have required insurance coverage and federal grants. JSU’s Board of Trustees did adjust some of the university’s fee structures, but it didn’t raise tuition. We commend board members for that decision.
The obvious dilemma is that few colleges or universities have a version of billionaire Robert F. Smith. JSU’s commencement speaker this month was Cheryl Beville-Orange, a Dallas FedEx executive who holds two JSU degrees. No student-loan debt was relieved that day. Those bills will come due, and soon.