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 / Shutterstock.com

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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  • Katan Scott

    Brittney, excellent points. I would like to add that an education also does not guarantee that people will be able to make better decisions or be more innovative and productive. There are people out there with advanced degrees that are dumb as dirt.

  • Brittney Miles

    It
    is important to note that while the GI Bill was great and all, it primarily
    benefited whites. Blacks, though qualifying, were disproportionately left out.

    The cost of education, and the social value of it, plays a major role in upward
    mobility and building of social/human capital for undeserved populations.
    Making it free takes away one more opportunity to successfully navigate our
    institutions and social systems.

    Having a few stupid people with loud mouths in positions of power, is not a
    legitimate reason to make mass education necessary – unless of course you
    intend to force mass participation. We cannot assume that formal education is
    something that the masses actually wants to participate in, or that the
    curriculum will be effective at quieting the foolishness.

    Please acknowledge that us “falling behind the rest of the world” is
    neo-liberal globalized jargon that really comes down to economic networks piggy-backing
    off education. Boop.

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  • The_Fixer

    I agree, a free college education is something that absolutely needs to be done. But it needs to be a true public education system that does it, and it needs to be free of corrupting political and commercial interests. Minimal government funds going to private schools and some non-partisan management body to run the public educational system.

    There also has to be a change in the way that people are educated. We’ve had a great emphasis on new knowledge bringing us new technologies to make our lives better and help us live longer. In the process, we’ve lost a lot of old knowledge. In the event that someone tries to pass down that knowledge, they’re sumarrily dismissed; it’s not “the new way.” It’s another way we’re ignoring our history.

    I know this because I see the same mistakes being made over and over in manufacturing – and in other realms as well (think foreign policy and such). Yes, we need to discover new ways of doing things, but we have to stop repeating past mistakes.

    In addition, there absolutely has to be a new emphasis on the teaching of critical thinking with the intent to help students develop effective critical thinking skills. Half, or more, of our political debates would disappear if this came to be.

    In other words, this is a worthy idea, if done right. But we can’t do it haphazardly by throwing money at it, money that benefits only large corporations and certain political interests. There has to be a system in place that serves the common good, not that of only a few interests.

    Is this possible? Not in the current political environment. A lot has to change before the idea gets serious public discussion. Sadly, a lack of education (critical thinking skills) keeps this from happening. It’s a vicious circle, one that will be impossible to escape unless a lot changes.

  • Henrik

    Great post Max. The lack of education is the fundamental problem in every society. Education is a basic human right, and making it ‘free’ (as in a low-rent student loan) is the USA’s first step towards equality between rich and poor. Next step – free health care.
    -a social democrat from Norway

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  • DGT

    The student loan system is crazy. I have a government student loan that I am repaying at 6.5% interest. It’s my highest-interest loan (mortgage at 3.75%, bank car loan at 2%), despite the fact that it can never be discharged.

    Graduates are struggling under a cloud of debt. And yet the best reform that we can seem to come up with is to try to limit loan payments to a certain portion of salary.

    Why can’t we just subsidize college 100%, and recoup the money through the increased revenue from taxes that graduates will pay with their higher income? It would be a win-win for everyone … a more educated populace, more equal access to higher ed, and, best of all, more reasonable allocation of funds. If universities weren’t trying to operate as “businesses”, they wouldn’t be trying to compete for students by building shopping-mall student centers, gourmet food courts, high-end fitness centers and luxury dorms.

  • ComradeRutherford

    Which is the sole reason why the GOP governors of Illinois and Michigan are proposing to close all state universities and colleges. It’s Newspeak: take away the words and thoughts that describe liberalism so that no one can conceive of a word where they are not starving to death so 100 rich people can live like emperors.

  • Demosthenes

    As states decrease funding for their universities, costs go up. This is a feature, and not a big. The GOP essentially doesn’t believe in state funded colleges. What is happening in states like North Carolina & Wisconsin in radically chopping education funding is no anomaly.

    This trend is finally causing less people to go to college. Ironically, private schools, many of whom have large endowments, are far more generous with financial and merit aid, yet few even are aware of it.

  • Bill_Perdue

    Do you mean something like the way Rahm and Obama are kicking the Chicago teachers union? http://www.labornotes.org/2015/02/chicago-teachers-take-rahm-democrats

  • caphillprof

    It’s because the management class decided that they are all ENTITLED to live like princes. A second home at the beach, a third home in the mountains, an ex wife, a wife and a succession of mistresses, spoiled brat children parked in private schools requiring a small firm of lawyers to keep the kids out of the papers if not out of the jail. It goes on and on and on and all at our expense.

  • caphillprof

    A segment of the population always argue something along the lines of they all are alike or both parties are to blame, etc. But the difference with Republicans and Democrats is that while neither will go to the aid of a man in a ditch, only the Republican would go over and kick the man already in the ditch..

  • At the vast majority of colleges and universities, sports cost a lot more than they bring in. Yes, it’s a revenue stream for the schools with wealthy fans/alumni and that are on tv a lot. For the rest, the students are being charged fees that go to upkeep of the stadium and the athletic department.

  • I’ve come to believe their ultimate goal is to repeal the Enlightenment altogether. Reinstating indentured servitude would be an obvious step in that direction.

  • Also, the ignorant are much easier to manipulate and oppress.

  • This was the original vision for state colleges and universities, for them to be free or almost no cost; there was even talk at one time of giving students small stipends so they could focus 100% on their educations. Moreover, while the GI Bill was seen as a reward for returning WWII veterans (and later the veterans of America’s other wars), education should be the birthright of every American.

    Investing in education should be the highest ideal. However, in this country the practices of capitalism gradually became unfettered and then cancerous. Now, there is nothing which is immune from the profit motive. Nothing that isn’t seen as an opportunity for plunder for the further obscene enrichment of the plutocratic classes.

    College tuition rates have skyrocketed since the early 1980s why? Profits and top-level administrative salaries (plus in many schools, sports…another profit center). Because students are now indentured to the banks whose loans must be secured to pay the ridiculous tuition and other fees. Does anybody truly believe it costs tens of thousands of dollars each year just to educate one student?

    A sane nation would see education as the ultimate infrastructure investment, made easy because people are highly motivated to want a better life for themselves and their children. A sane nation would look at education and say, “Okay, how do we do this in the most efficient and least expensive way possible, helping our citizens reach their highest potential?”

    There are, in fact, any number of nations that do offer free college educations — even to non-citizens. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/10/29/7-countries-where-americans-can-study-at-universities-in-english-for-free-or-almost-free/

    We don’t do that. America is ‘exceptional’ that way. America sees an educational system, one that by necessity takes some amount of money to operate, and say, “How do we extract the maximum profit possible? Quality is not a priority.”

    From this motive devolves everything else: Turning public schools into prisons and for-profit charter schools. The obsession with standardized testing, which is pushed by companies making money off the tests and the materials geared not towards actual education, but merely to indoctrinate kids like trained pets to spit out test answers on command. And the ridiculous inflation of college costs.

  • ComradeRutherford

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

    Yes, that is why the Conservatives hate it.

  • keirmeister

    What you’re hitting on is the Big Conservative Lie. It’s the notion that whatever Republicans say, they probably mean the opposite (or for “certain” people).

    For example, they rail against big government; but what they’re really against is regulating their corporate friends. They have no problem controlling what a woman does with her body or who can enjoy a joint.

    Republicans call themselves “pro-life”, but have no problem executing people or starting wars.

    They say they want people off social welfare, but are against forcing companies to pay a living wage.

    And so it is with education. I submit that conservatives WANT the general American public to be uneducated. An educated populace will see through their BS. And educated middle class insists on accountability. And educated people recognize that Trickle Down Economics is a joke.

    But an uneducated, increasingly poorer middle class becomes more and more reliant on the crumbs those in power leave behind for them. It is a form of control; and it’s something we’re already seeing in the US.

    So yes, the dumbing down of America is by design. But they have to be careful: make it too extreme and you have a revolution. Thus things like Fox News come in to redirect frustration away from the actual culprits. As long as you keep the “little people” fighting among themselves, they will be too preoccupied to realize who is actually making their lives difficult. It’s the oldest trick in the book.

  • nicho

    Well, if the 99 percent actually start thinking for themselves, the empire comes down — and both Democrats and Republicans know that. Keeping people from being educated is a good way to keep that thinking under control.

  • nicho

    Now, here’s an even better idea from Mitch Daniels — former Reagan adviser, corporatist and currently president of Purdue.

    http://www.indystar.com/story/news/2015/03/17/daniels-asks-congress-try-alternative-student-loan/24911835/

    WASHINGTON – Purdue University President Mitch Daniels would like to give students another way to finance their education. Instead of taking out a traditional college loan, students would have the option of finding an investor — possibly a Purdue alum — to finance their degree in exchange for a share of their future income.

    Indentured servitude. Why hasn’t anyone thought of that before? People could “invest” in students the same way that plantation owners used to “invest” in workers. Maybe we could even have student auctions.

  • 2karmanot

    Well, that certainly explains why America is so enamored with dystopian zombie movies. This is an excellent beginning to a topic that is mandatory for full exposure. Those of us who have/had careers in education began to see this disaster brewing several decades now.

  • Bill_Perdue

    Free education, high union wages and benefits for students, workers, retired workers and single heads of households and socialized medicine instead of Obama’s crappy plan based on giveaways to insurance companies are the bare basics for beginning to create a government responsive to workers instead of the rich.

    Democrats and Republicans won’t go along with that and that’s their problem.

  • Yes, but the conversation needs to be broader than this. Why has tuition increased over 3x the rate of inflation for the past few decades? It’s not like that extra money went to pay professors. More and more universities are cutting back on full time faculty and replacing them with low-paying/no-benefits adjunct positions. Basically the money is going to massively overpaid celebrity university presidents with no knowledge of higher education and to build massive buildings that do little to nothing to educate anyone. We need to talk about where all this student loan money has actually been going and what it’s been paying for before we give universities even more federal money.

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