Dispatch New Mexico: The decline of a free-thinking middle class

Politicians like to talk about how the middle class is struggling, and for once they’re right.

America’s middle class has been on the decline for decades now. Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center reported that while middle-income households have remained steady since 2010 (when the U.S. was emerging from the Great Recession), they’ve been on prolonged slide for about 40 years now. The number of middle-income families now stands at about 51 percent of the American population, but in 1970 it was 61 percent, according to the nonpartisan think tank.

The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, while the national tax burden is falling disproportionately on the middle class.

One symptom of the problem is the fact that college enrollment is on the decline—and while it’s dropping nationwide, it’s the worst in New Mexico.

Last month, a journalism project at New Mexico State University, kokopelli-nmsu.com, released a series of reports on the prolonged decline in enrollment at NMSU. For five straight years, New Mexico’s second largest four-year school has seen declines in the number of students enrolled. Meanwhile, the state’s largest four-year school, the University of New Mexico, is facing similar circumstances.

In fact, nearly all of New Mexico’s colleges and universities have seen a decline in enrollment.

According to an Albuquerque Journal report last May, at the state’s seven four-year schools, between the spring 2014 and spring 2015 semesters, only Eastern New Mexico University had an enrollment increase, a paltry 0.7 percent. New Mexico Tech came close, with only one less student enrolled, but all other schools saw declines between 1.7 percent (at Western New Mexico University) and 20.1 percent (at Northern New Mexico College).

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the Journal also reported, the state’s cumulative enrollment drop of 8.3 percent is the worst in the nation.

That bodes poorly for our state’s economic future, but I think it also signals a threat to our freedoms as well.

It should surprise no one that a college education helps young people achieve middle-class status. Studies have shown that the higher one’s education, and greater your earning power. But that’s not all a college education does; it also teaches you how to think and act on your own.

A big cause of middle-class stagnation, I’m convinced, lies in the stifling of entrepreneurial initiative. More and more people are finding the road of least resistance in our 21st century economy is to simply go to work for some multinational corporation while being led like sheep toward the myth of financial security.

College, on the other hand, shouldn’t be only about credentials for employment. It should also be about critical thinking.

New Mexico’s Lottery Scholarship is not helping like it should. The kokopelli-nmsu report points out that the requirements for this financially strained scholarship program have been tightened—now, New Mexicans must maintain a 2.75 grade-point average instead of the 2.5 GPA previously required, while the required credit hours were increased from 12 per semester to 15. That’s “to ensure that students get their degrees faster,” kokopelli-nmsu reports.

All the better to herd ‘em through, don’t you think?

The Lottery Scholarship is controlled by lawmakers who suffer from political tunnel vision. Too many of them only see the financial demands and the political benefits that come with offering New Mexico’s high school graduates “free” access to a college education. They aren’t concerned about the abstract value that a bachelor’s degree offers.

Democrats and Republicans alike agree that the nation’s declining middle class must be addressed—after all, that’s where most of the votes are—but that’s all they agree on. Democrats are more inclined to blame tax breaks on the wealthy as the reason for our declining middle class, while Republicans prefer to blame Big Government for stunting free enterprise.

But I think it’s more about the lack of intellectual preparation. The middle class is being squeezed into conformity. Free thinkers are becoming fewer and fewer, while the wealthiest and most powerful set the agenda.

Institutions of higher learning should counter such sheep-herding by allowing their students to explore new territories, to think beyond their comfort zones. Many professors still do that, but the squeeze nowadays is not toward independence of thought but dependence on the status quo.

The lack of support for paying off student loans is a prime example of how our political system isn’t looking to grow the middle class but to contain it.

And that, in my opinion, might just be the greatest threat to democracy there is.

Tom McDonald is founder and editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange and editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He may be reached at tmcdonald@gazettemediaservices.com or tmcdonald@rdrnews.com.