The AFL-CIO Executive Council's Statement on Accessibility in Higher Education

February 18, 2014

At the 2013 convention in Los Angeles, the AFL-CIO reaffirmed its historical commitment to increasing access to post-secondary education and alleviating the financial burden that now too often is part of that education. Accordingly, we call on federal and state policymakers to make post-secondary training and education more accessible by ending the trend of disinvestment and increasing funding for public higher education, especially community and technical colleges.

State funding for higher education is now at lower levels in the last quarter century.  To make up for lost state funds, schools have raised the price of tuition fees by more than 1,000% since 1980.  States have cut crucial student services such as tutoring and job placement, and has led to radical changes in the academic workforce.  Colleges are increasingly relying on contingent faculty to do the bulk of teaching.  Contingent faulty– who now comprise more than 70% of the instructional corps–are every bit as committed to the education of their students and the mission of their institutions as their tenure-track colleagues, yet they receive a fraction of the compensation, few of the employee benefits, and entirely too little respect for doing the same work.  This is particularly true at those colleges that serve the students with the greatest needs.  Disinvestment and a lack of commitment to instruction has left a majority of college educators without the professional supports they need to provide the highest-quality education to their students.  In short, students are paying more, whether out of pocket or through student loans, and receiving less.

At the same time, financial aid has shifted from needs-based grants and scholarships to loans from which the federal government is making a hefty profit. Increasing numbers of students, especially lower-income students and people of color see their educational opportunities—and the financial stability education provides—curtailed by the specter of long-term debt. Colleges and universities grow ever more stratified by family income. Too many students face the terrible dilemma of abandoning college or burdening themselves with excessive debt that limits their life and career choices.

The total of outstanding student loan debt is rapidly approaching the $1.3 trillion mark, stifling the already weak recovery from the Great Recession and preventing many young workers and their families from investing in homes and families due to the drain caused by servicing these debts. And while polling indicates that union members, especially those younger than 45, are more likely than the population at large to have pursued some form of post-secondary education, including technical college, community college or baccalaureate and graduate education, working families are carrying the bulk of outstanding student loans.  They want to prepare themselves for the future, but all too often find that future is one saddled with excessive debts.

This trend must be reversed. Funding levels must be restored and increased so all public higher education students receive the best instruction and services possible. We further call on policymakers at all levels to increase funding and access to needs-based aid and to simplify the process for applying for aid. Financial aid should increase access and make it easier for students to focus on their studies and climb the ladder of financial success, not burden them with debt or increase and prolong their financial obligations as Pay-It-Forward schemes may do.

As the Department of Education and schools begin the process of implementing the Obama administration’s plans to improve our institutions of higher education, they must focus on increasing access for lower income and first-generation students in any reforms, and not reproduce a Race-to-the-Top system at the post-secondary level. Federal funding should be used to encourage states to invest more in public higher education and to use funds to improve instruction and student services.

The business community also needs to step up to invest in education. Business complains of a “skills shortage” while attacking the collective bargaining structures that provide training, and refusing to compensate workers for the skills they have. Paying a decent wage is a vital ingredient in ensuring that workers continue to invest in their education and can help their children access educational opportunity. In addition, business needs to work together with the labor movement to meet workers’ need for training and education rather than blaming others for their short-sighted approaches.

Post-secondary education is important to both workers’ and our country’s economic success and we will continue to stand by our commitment to increase access to post-secondary education and training for all workers, to the end that all workers may pursue the training and education they want and need to live the lives they desire.

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