President Obama had a good idea recently. “[W]hat I’d like to do is to see the first two years of community college free for everybody who is willing to work for it,” he declared in a White House video, introducing a program called America’s College Promise. As usual, he was too timid to fully develop his ideas. I’ll help him out and do so here.
It’s pretty uncontroversial to say that society should incentivize the behaviors that it wants to have happen. It’s also fairly obvious that education is a worthwhile endeavor. People afraid to tackle the one percent’s role in spawning America’s skyrocketing wealth inequality tout education like it’s some magical panacea. We can’t agree on much these days, but almost everyone agrees that education is good.
A humanist like me believes that education is a basic human right. Knowledge is power. Education connects us to our ancestors, helps us critically examine our society and empowers us to change our lives and world for the better. There is something sacred about learning, something irreducible to cold-blooded calculations of economic value.
Dispassionate econo-babble makes me cringe, but at least technocrats consider education a worthy investment. According to the Pew Research Center, people ages 25 to 32 who attain a bachelor’s degree or more earn, on average, $45,500 a year, those with a two-year degree or less earn $30,000 and people with a high school diploma earn $28,000. Over the course of a career, the difference in earnings between a bachelor’s degree and a high school diploma approaches $800,000. Education makes people better workers — it teaches technical and people skills that enhance economic productivity.
Regardless of why you support investment in education, you might look around and wonder: Why on Earth do we have a higher education system that seems to be designed precisely to discourage people from going to college?
According to the New York Federal Reserve, total student loan debt was approximately $1 trillion in 2013, quadrupling since 2003. Sixty percent of students take out loans, and student loan debt now exceeds credit card and auto loan debt. Tuition at public universities has soared, increasing 112 percent between 1990 and 2010, according to Demos. At the same time, state funding for “public” universities has plummeted: State subsidies per full-time student in public universities decreased by nearly $2,000 over that same time period and comprises far less than half of most universities’ operating budgets. And I hardly need to mention the astronomical price of an education at a private, elite university.
What’s the solution to this fiasco? Here’s what I propose: Public colleges should be made truly public in terms of their funding, and they should be made free. Private universities’ tuition should be capped at a maximum value to be determined by the federal government. For people who feel college isn’t suitable for them, technical and vocational programs should be expanded and made available gratis. We might also consider a jubilee for the people who are already mired in student debt. I can hear gasps of horror from the econ majors already — what about moral hazard? — but such reforms make perfect economic sense.
If we as a society believe education is worthwhile — either as an activity that has a multiplier effect in terms of future economic growth or as an inherently valuable process of self-cultivation — we should put our money where our mouth is. Making college education cheap and easily accessible will allow more people to attend college, and it’ll likely create a social norm where some degree of college education is expected.
It isn’t as if such reforms have never been undertaken before. College is free in Sweden, Finland and Denmark, and tuition is much lower than American averages in most European countries. Giving people who want to go to college a chance to go without burdening them with crushing debt would be a first step toward joining the ranks of civilized Western industrialized democracies.
“Where will the money come from?” deficit hawks shriek. In total, student tuition costs at public universities are about $62.6 billion, according to a 2013 Department of Education report. Given that the Pentagon wasted $70 billion according to a 2011 audit, that price tag actually shouldn’t be too much of a concern.
Would some people squander their education? Undoubtedly. But many college students already do. The possibility that some people will misuse their time is no excuse for refusing American citizens the opportunity to grow as human beings.
Instituting free and universal higher education is affordable. More importantly, it’s the right thing to do. John Adams once wrote, “Laws for the liberal education of youth … are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a human and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.” Let’s take his words to heart.
Scott Remer is a junior in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.