It’s time to make college free

Earlier this year, President Obama announced a plan to guarantee tuition for any student who wanted to attend community college. The federal government would cover 75 percent of the cost of tuition, and states would cover the remaining 25 percent.

He didn’t go nearly far enough.

It’s time to make college education free. Not just community college, all college. And if the states don’t want to pitch in to help out, the federal government should cover the full cost. Here’s why:

We’ve tried it before, and it’s worked.

America built itself into the superpower it is today by giving itself a free education. At the end of World War II, sixteen million Americans — an eighth of our total population — returned home to be greeted by the GI Bill. Signed into law by FDR, this bill guaranteed funding for the higher education of all veterans who were accepted into college, and led to eight million Americans earning college degrees.

According to historian Ed Humes, those eight million produced “fourteen Nobel prize winners, three Supreme Court Justices, three Presidents, a dozen Senators, and two dozen Pulitzer prize winners.” It expanded the higher education system in America to one of the best in the world, and was a major influence in the economic boom between 1950 and 1980.

Aided by the GI Bill, 18-24 year-old college enrollment in America grew from 15% in 1940 to 40% in 1960. At the same time, the Cold War, and more specifically the Space Race, spurred unprecedented advances in STEM education and research, marked by President Eisenhower’s passage of the National Defense Education Act, which funded education at all levels and provided scholarships for STEM fields in an attempt to raise the number of scientists and mathematicians from which we could draw upon for military research.

It was in this educational context that some of our biggest leaps in technological advancements — such as the Internet — were born.

We need it

If ever there were a time to make a stand for a literate, competent and generally educated populace, that time is now. Education is under attack in our country, and it’s time to fight back.

The state of Oklahoma is attempting to mutilate or axe AP US history. Despite courts ruling over and over again that creationism is not a science, that evolution is, and that teaching them side-by-side is unconstitutional, Texas is trying to outprint the rest of the country with textbooks claiming otherwise. The Republican Party wants to destroy the Department of Education altogether. And in spite of an overwhelming consensus in the scientific community, conservative politicians are making their careers by suggesting that it’s OK to equate opinion with fact when it comes to climate change.

These rabidly anti-intellectual stances might have something to do with why, in spite of disproportionately high dollars-per-student spent on primary and secondary education, our achievement rates are falling behind the rest of the world.

College cost, via Shutterstock

College costs, via Shutterstock

And right now, it doesn’t get much better in postsecondary institutions. Colleges raised their tuition by a total of 20 percent between 2007 and 2012 (tacked onto an increase of 1,120 percent increase since 1978), and government funding per student dropped by 27 percent in that same time frame. That’s left graduates across the country struggling under the weight of 1.2 trillion dollars in college debt, with the average student owing about 25 thousand dollars when the leave school — well beyond the difference in entry-level salaries for an average college graduate and a non-college graduate.

So it should come as no surprise that we are currently in the midst of a historically unprecedented decline in college enrollment.

We can afford it, and then some. 

The federal government already spends $69 billion annually in financial aid packages, but a huge chunk of aid goes to private and for-profit universities (for-profit institutions account for 10 percent of our college enrollment and 25 percent of federal aid). If every dollar of federal aid in 2012 had instead been used to cover the all public university tuition, taxpayers would have saved money

Total public university tuition was $62.6 billion in 2012, and federal Pell Grants accounted for $21.8 billion of it, so even if we wanted to keep our financial aid infrastructure, we could have covered the cost of tuition for every public university student in 2012 with about $41 billion extra dollars. That would have added a meager 1.2 percent to that year’s 3.5 trillion dollar budget if we hadn’t cut a single penny elsewhere.

Of course, if public education were free then more students would go, thereby costing us more in the short run. But isn’t that the point? If the GI Bill is any indication, the investments we make in the short term will pay for themselves in the long term.

education protest

Education protest, via Smart7 /

History says that funding higher education will make us a more prosperous and powerful nation, and going all-in on free college could cost us less than we currently spend tiptoeing around the issue with a Pell Grant here and a student loan there.

The only obstacle is politics. Rather than committing to something that runs the risk of Sean Hannity crying “socialist,” our elected officials are wasting 6.4 billion dollars and saddling the generation which makes up America’s future with 1.2 trillion dollars in unnecessary debt.

Not only is the anti-education wing of the Republican Party sabotaging science education and history education for the sake of achieving their political aims, they are stunting the intellectual and financial growth of America’s youth and, through them, the growth of the nation’s economy.

So let’s make college free. For the sake of our country, we have to make a serious reinvestment in ourselves.

Max Mills is a 26 year old Texan with a degree in Computer Science. Although he writes about a variety of things, his main focuses are education and political accountability. You can follow him on Twitter at @MaxFMills

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