Time to Retire the American Bootstrap Myth

It’s high school graduation season again, which means millions of families across the country are about to grapple with the task of paying for college.

As I think about all those families about to take on what for many will be crippling debt, I’m reminded of the commencement speech at my brother’s graduation from the University of Wisconsin – Madison in 2011. The speakers were Tashia Morgridge and her husband John, who was the second chairman and CEO of Cisco Systems and led the growth of the company from 34 employees to more than 50,000 in just 18 years, becoming one of the wealthiest people in America in the process.

Their words that stuck with me weren’t business tips or inspirational tales about chasing dreams, but the story about how John Morgridge got into Madison.

“We came to the university with our Wauwatosa High School diplomas, no SATs, no applications, no essays to write,” John said. “Just our diploma, and 75 dollars for tuition.”

Then Tashia took the microphone.

“In the fall of 1951,” she said, “I arrived at Madison to start my freshman year, while John – my high school boyfriend – was to remain in Milwaukee, go to school locally, and live at home. Imagine my surprise when walking toward Bascom on the first day of classes a familiar arm suddenly encircled my waist. It was that easy. John found a place to stay, and a job waiting tables, and enrolled at Wisconsin. Education and love flourished.”

It’s a cute story. It also floored me. The college experience that I, and most of my generation from the late 1990s remember, is one of loan and scholarship applications, hopes of financial aid, and begging.

Thinking I must have remembered the speech wrong, I found a transcript and confirmed that I hadn’t. Still, I figured it was an oversimplification for the sake of storytelling, that John could not have gotten into Madison so easily, by simply showing up. I contacted the Morgridges’ foundation and a representative confirmed that the story was entirely correct.

The Morgridges, through lobbying and their foundation, have been pushing state legislators to address rising college costs because they recognize that today’s high school graduates face a much more difficult road than they did. In an April 25, 2011, letter to Wisconsin State Senator Lena Taylor, they wrote:  “When we graduated from Madison in the 1950s the state was paying 40 to 50 percent of our cost of education. Today the state is paying less than 20 percent and this is likely to move lower in the decades ahead.”

They were right. Today, it’s just 16.7 percent.

In 1951, tuition and fees at UW – Madison were just $120 for the academic year. Inflation doesn’t come close to accounting for the increase to today’s rate of $10,488. Add books, room and board, travel, and other expenses, and the cost for an in-state resident to attend the University of Wisconsin will be $25,654 next year.

This doesn’t just seem drastic because the Morgridges college years came in the postwar years. The average age of United States senators is 62, while the average House member is 57. That means most of our representatives were at college in the mid-1970s, when the state was still funding 44 percent of the University of Wisconsin’s budget.

Yet those representatives are quick to ridicule today’s students as lazy and too reliant on the state. “Pull yourselves up by your bootstraps, like my generation did,” they preach.

In last year’s Democratic presidential primaries, Bernie Sanders was mocked by many on the left and the right when he proposed that public universities charge no tuition. In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, columnist Christian Schneider wrote that Sanders’ proposal not only would never happen, but that “it is horrifying that anyone even proposing such an impossibility is taken seriously as a candidate.” Fox News pundit Sean Hannity said such ideas would bring “the end of America as we know it.”

He was right. At least from a college tuition standpoint, it would be the end of America as we know it today, and would take us back to the America men like them experienced when their own dreams were taking shape.

Many may think of people who scraped and clawed their way through college, whose parents worked two jobs to help put them through.

What they don’t consider is how amazing that is. Not amazing that they worked hard, but rather that it was even possible to work your way through college. A student from a low-income family could couple a part-time job with a summer job and make enough to leave college with little or no student-loan debt.

Today, students busting their tails working outside the classroom couldn’t hope to come close to paying for it. The cost of college makes the idea of saving a couple of thousand dollars over the summer seem pointless. Many students and their parents decide that their time is better spent with family, gaining life experiences, and taking on debt.

Wisconsin resident tuition in 1950 was $120. Thirty years later it was still just $976, but then tuition rose sharply to $2,108 by 1990. By 2000 it was $3,791, and by 2010 it doubled again, to $8,987.

In 1956, a college student making the minimum wage of 70 cents an hour could work 40 hours a week for three months in the summer and cover the entire cost of tuition, and still have $216 left to pay for housing.

Even in 1980, a student earning the minimum wage of $3.25 per hour could earn nearly enough over a summer to pay tuition and fees. A 20-hour-a-week job through the school year could cover the rest, plus housing.

But in the ensuing three decades, college became a debt game.

Today, a minimum wage job would earn that same student $3,480 over the summer, enough to cover roughly a third of the year’s tuition and fees, with housing yet to be addressed.

If you want to put the responsibility of paying for college on parents, you’ll find a similar trend. In 1950, the median household income was $3,216. Tuition cost about four percent of household income.

By 1980, median household income had risen to $16,671, and tuition was about six percent of income. In 2014 when median household income in Wisconsin was $52,622, average tuition at public universities was more than 16 percent of median household income.

A family would have to save $4,356 a year, starting at birth, to cover in-state tuition for their child at UW – Madison.

This is the framework for addressing college costs in this country, not one based on a myth of white male senators who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. Though sobering, at least John Morgridge, in his speech acknowledged the problem.

“Today you will graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison,” he said in the commencement speech. “It is unfortunately true that our generation, and that of your parents, have left you with a big mess that will now be yours to clean up. Wars, budget challenges, pollution, global warming, cuts in education, battles over healthcare, natural disasters.”

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