What is the most powerful force in the universe?
If you’re a Harry Potter aficionado, you might say “love.” Understandable, as it saved his life from the villain of the series. If you’re a physicist, you’d probably go with the “strong nuclear” force. It holds atoms together, literally creating the material world. Or, if you fancy a different take, you could go with Einstein. His apocryphal answer? Compound interest.
I’m with him.
If you invested $10 today and earned 5 percent annually, in 50 years you would have about $114. At 10 percent, your account would show $1,174 in 2048. And the same scenario, but 20 percent return? Over $91,000.
Of course, when you’re earning compound returns, things are good. The inverse is less pleasant.
Since 1998, inflation equals about 55 percent. In other words, $100 in 1998 is equivalent to $155 dollars today. But not everything is created equal.
If you are attending an average public university today as an out-of-state student, prices have increased about 300 percent since 1998. It is over 340 percent for an in-state student. And for private colleges? A “bargain” 268 percent hike. Compound cost increases.
The simple reality is higher education prices have been outpacing inflation since about 1980. So are students getting more for more, or is an educational edifice eating up resources without returning value?
It is a real question, but probably one without a firm answer. That’s OK, because we can’t change the past. What we can do is look towards the future. And, at least here in Maine, there are some good ideas and even better progress in building a 21st century higher education system.
It starts with basics, recognizing schools are places where a free exchange of ideas can occur, but partisan political activity is beyond their purview. The University of Southern Maine lived up to this principle, with President Glenn Cummings, the former Portland-area state representative, Democratic Speaker of the House, and Obama Administration official — in other words, not exactly a right-winger — prohibiting a retired professor from teaching classes.
Why? Because the professor tried to award collegiate credit to students who signed up to protest now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Mainers of all stripes recognized it was beyond the pale, and it was promptly and appropriately addressed by USM.
Meanwhile, a great and undertold success story in government during Gov. Paul LePage’s tenure was his dogged focus — and ultimate achievement — of increased transferability of credits between Maine’s community college system and the university system. One of the biggest advocates for this change was the first individual ever appointed to both systems’ boards simultaneously.
A guy named Shawn Moody.
Credit transfers are one way Maine is combating the price increase in higher education. A single credit hour at a community college costs $94 for an in-state student. At the University of Maine in Orono, it is $293, and $271 at USM. You can take the same calculus class at each campus, but you don’t need to in order to see which is economically the best deal.
That is one of the things which is interesting about Moody. He didn’t go to college; instead, he started a business. Fixing and recycling cars, he put his hands and mind to work. And he did pretty well at it. He probably even earned more than the interest he would have otherwise received on his investment.
So, while compound interest may be the most powerful force in the world, human ingenuity can still outsmart it. And with a work ethic, you can beat it. Moody proved that with his life story. He worked — with others — to outflank it in our higher education apparatus.
So maybe he is the right guy to do the same with the state budget, growing the economy time-and-again over inflation. In a few weeks, we’ll find out if he gets the job.