The great advantage of the United States has always been our ability to create opportunity.
We have a unique society that encourages and incentivizes opening doors to others. And in doing so, we have fostered innovation, economic growth and a more equitable society.
Opportunity for each of us comes from a blend of public, private and personal investments of money, time and creative energy. But just because each journey is unique, that doesn’t mean the government does not play a key institutional role.
Pell Grants are critical in facilitating individual opportunity. More than 150,000 Arizonans a year receive Pell Grants to help pay for college, getting an average of more than $3,500 per student.
To the non-politicized eye, it would seem like a good thing that there is a program allowing more kids to go to college by removing financial barriers. But these days, even functional government programs that help build the kind of society we want aren’t safe from political attacks.
Last week, Rep. Jeff Flake blamed the rising cost of college tuition on Pell Grants. Flake told the Washington Times: “How in the world can you deny a relationship between Pell Grants and the cost of education? I think that’s putting your head in the sand.”
Flake is saying this because it fits into his world view that government can’t do things for the people. That’s fine that he holds that belief, but it’s not reflective of the facts.
Funding for Pell Grants hasn’t come even close to keeping up with the rising cost of tuition. In 1976, Pell Grants covered 72 percent of the cost of college. Today, it’s just 32 percent. Additionally, the Department of Education and a number of leading education groups and economists have concluded there is no correlation between the amount of assistance provided through Pell Grants and the cost of tuition.
To me, a debate about rising tuition costs should start with an honest assessment of the reasons for the problem and its ramifications. But in today’s hyper-politicized world, our political leaders aren’t assessing the facts before launching a partisan attack.
In this world view of stark — and sometimes imaginary — contrasts, there is an “us” vs. “them” polarity set up for any argument. This is what compels politicians to take stands against programs that work and to shoot down ideas that would move us forward.
I don’t need partisan talking points to know that creating opportunity for more students by making education affordable and accessible works — I lived it.
When I got home from Vietnam, I was a combat-decorated Special Forces soldier. But I didn’t have a high school diploma because I had dropped out, and so I struggled to get into college. I got my start at Bronx Community College, but only because of an open enrollment program for veterans.
That was society opening a door for me, and I ran through it.
I became a doctor, police officer, a Distinguished University Professor and later the 17th Surgeon General of the United States and businessman. But none of that would have happened had there not been the opportunity to get my education.
I understand that some government programs don’t work as well as they should. People are rightfully frustrated by that. But being guided by an ideology that all government is bad blinds you to real successes. And politicians who ignore the facts in favor of partisan spin block us from solving problems.
Dr. Richard Carmona is the 17th Surgeon General of the United States and a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate for Arizona.