The War on Poverty Rages On – Audrey J. Murrell, Ph.D.

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Recently, President Obama stated that “the U.S. still has a long way to go to open the door to college for low-income Americans,” and that “developing the talent of high-achieving students could have transformative effects.” As someone who values the power of education to unlock possibilities for individuals, communities, and our nation, I wholeheartedly agree.  Ultimately, for our nation to move forward and to be competitive globally, we need an educated workforce and a college education remains the most effective pathway toward employment and prosperity for Americans.

The irony of President Obama’s statements is that they take place in the shadow of the 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty, an initiative by President Lyndon B. Johnson to target hunger, joblessness, discrimination, education, and inequality across the U.S. However, after so many years and so many millions of dollars spent, access to education and meaningful work is still elusive for many individuals, especially those within underrepresented and minority groups.

According to data provided by “The Project on Student Debt,” seven in 10 graduating college seniors had substantial student loan debt of $29,400 per borrower. From 2008 to 2012, debt at graduation (federal and private loans combined) increased an average of 6% annually. Furthermore, default rates on federal loans rose in 2012, with a large share of these coming from college students. Within my own state of Pennsylvania, our average debt for public four-year institutions is just over $31,000, which ranks as the 4th highest of 50 states in terms of debt incurred by college students.

In the War on Poverty, it has been a grave mistake to overlook the importance of providing accessibility to affordable resources for higher education.  We have forgotten that education within our country has always served as the path out of poverty and toward good jobs, prosperity, citizenship, and as President Obama articulated- transformation.  For colleges and universities, reining in higher education costs is difficult in an environment of dwindling or flat revenue support from state governments.  This issue is paramount as even students who successfully earn a college degree often have large debts from student loans, and depending on the earning potential of their career, paying those debts down can take years.

Therefore, our next battle, as the war hits the 50-year mark, is to improve federal student aid, increase college access, and improve college success rates.  Cutbacks to aid for college students at the state and federal levels must be re-examined in order to include better rates and terms on student loans, more effective tax benefits for pursuing higher education and broad reforms to our financial aid systems.  In continuing to fight the War on Poverty, let’s use the most powerful weapon of all: Education.

– For nearly three decades, Audrey J. Murrell has helped organizations to enhance their overall effectiveness by utilizing their most valuable assets: their human and social capital. Her research into effective mentoring, diversity and gender issues, and leadership development is widely published in top academic journals and frequently referenced in leading media outlets. Murrell is the Associate Dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s College of Business Administration and is an Associate Professor of Business Administration, Psychology, and Public and International Affairs.

This post is part of the War on Poverty blog series from REDF.