Academics and Airfare

Two factors could derail any chances our city has for improving its fortunes.

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David Cox, executive assistant to U of M President Shirley Raines, has seen the shift in thinking and costs to students in his decades at the university. Drawing on his political science and urban governance expertise, he says, “At the time of the G.I. Bill, to a large extent, it was seen that expanding educational opportunities was a public good with benefits that went way beyond the individual. In the last 25 years, it moved from being seen as a public good to a private good.”

Perception became reality as the cost of an education was seen as the problem of the individual rather than the state.  That’s particularly bad for Memphis where the U of M is the largest developer of talent in a region with one of the highest poverty rates in the U.S. As a result, higher tuition has a doubly negative impact on Memphis at a time when the economic success of cities is tied to the presence of a highly educated workforce.

To complicate things, high Delta Air Lines airfares are ice on our economy’s wings, and the disconnect between the rhetoric of airport and economic development officials and the frustration voiced by the public only fuels widespread bitterness.     

If most Memphians have a story about our music and barbecue, even more have stories about the pain of high airline ticket prices that are now customary, and only a few years ago would have been the cost of a flight to Europe. As the hub with the highest ticket prices and the airport in the top three for most expensive airfares, MEM is not so much an open door to the world’s economy as one that has been slammed and locked for many Memphians.

In other words, at the time every city needs to connect easily and freely with the rest of the world, we have a major barrier to entry, and the greatest irony of all is that in the city where FedEx invented modern global commerce, our citizens are priced out of full participation in the global and even the national market because of airfares.

The Memphis regional economy remains unsteady and much needs to happen right for it to improve its trajectory. That Memphians are being blocked from a university education by climbing tuitions and from full participation in the national economy by airfares unlevels the playing field at the exact time that we need for our economy to take off. 

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