Higher education is a privilege that many high school students aspire to. But many of these students cannot afford to attend. Various people and organizations have been trying to help fund higher education for many years, in many ways including private loans, grants, scholarships, endowments, personal savings, and federal financial aid (government loans). While some of these options are better than others, they all take some amount of toll on the student or their family. What if there was a way to fund public colleges and universities in a way that providing free education to all students was possible such as Denmark does? Robert Reich says that higher education should be available to everyone, and writers Aaron Bady (Aljazeera America) and Don Kusler (Denver Post) weigh in on why public colleges and universities should be free to all.
In Denmark, a country that subsidises higher education, 40% of adults had a college degree or equivalent (2007). In the United States, only 30% of adults have a college degree (2013). In Denmark as of 2007, students paid no tuition and received $800 a month () for simply keeping their grades up and attending college. This investment in education leads to well educated people who have the ability to get jobs, as more than 73% of Danish adults are employed. In America, however, only 47% of Americans have full time jobs and almost 80% of Americans face poverty.
Many people in America know that there needs to be a change in our education system, but few speak out; Robert Reich, Aaron Bady and Don Kusler are some of them. Robert Reich says that “Post secondary education should be available to all young people who can benefit from it.” He believes that the de-emphasis on education in America is harming our country and says that America is “almost becoming a third world nation.” He attributes this divestment from higher education partly to the increasing wealth gap in America, and that many people can no longer pay for education so that they can get a job later in life. Many people are living in poverty and simply can’t afford to go to school. This problem is a self perpetuating cycle that won’t end unless we start re-investing in our future generations. He says we “can’t afford not to [invest in the future] and the rich have to pay their fair share [in taxes].” But Reich also doesn’t believe that simply investing money into the education system will set it back on the right track. He insists that effective teachers and appropriate use of university funds are also very important. He says “I’m not one of those who thinks the only way to fix what’s wrong with American education is to throw more money at it. We also need to do it much better. Teacher performance has to be squarely on the table. We should experiment with vouchers whose worth is inversely related to family income. Universities have to tame their budgets, especially for student amenities that have nothing to do with education.” (Robertreich.org)
Bady, a writer for a news group called Aljazeera America and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas and former doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley, also advocates for free higher education, writing that “Public education should be free. If it isn’t free, it isn’t public education.” He asserts that public universities in America have been degraded gradually, from institutions that strived to educate and advance the community to businesses run by the government for monetary gain. This statement seems to be in line with the way budget cuts are affecting public education; in 2012 University of California students were paying more than three times as much as they were only twenty years prior in 1992. (KQED news) The total in state tuition for the 2013-14 school year for University of California Berkeley is $33,320, and the out of state tuition is $56,198. (UC Berkeley website) Bady calls the increasing pressure for public universities to focus on research as a way to gain private investors a conflict of interest, which wouldn’t be possible if public universities were entirely funded by the government and weren’t dependant on outside funding and tuition hikes. Brady elaborates that “If an education is available only to those who can afford it — if an education is a commodity to be purchased in the marketplace — in what sense can it really be called public?” This is an interesting perspective that seems like fantasy fiction amidst the hubbub of tuition costs floating around a potential college student’s head. For students applying to college, it would be easier to look at how well they fit at a college if cost wasn’t an issue. But the reality for me and many other students is that college is expensive, when all things are considered not only are our choices dictated by cost but the overall worth of college is called into question.
Many public schools are now facing budget cuts such that they begin taking desperate measures in order to shift the financial burden; public schools that charge more for out of state students are now accepting more and more of these out of state and international students in order to raise the funds they need to maintain a working institution. (America.aljazeera.com). Bady uses a powerful analogy; “A better way to compare public and private would be to consider the difference between public roads and toll roads. Some toll roads are owned and operated by state governments and some by the private sector. But does the driver care who owns the road? I doubt it; the important thing is whether the road is free and open to all or whether it can be used only by those who can afford to drive on it. The same is true of public and private universities: A university is public only if those who need to use it can do so.” Today this seems like an incredibly novel idea, when it shouldn’t even raise an eyebrow. But our state colleges and universities have become so expensive that many people who would like to go to college can no longer do so.
So why isn’t the government funding education as a way to better our society? As Bady says, “If this country can build the world’s largest military and fight open-ended wars in multiple theaters across the globe, it can find a way to pay for public education.” The total cost for taxpayers of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars since 2001 is more than $1,506,918,100,000, which is an hourly rate of $11.26 million. The amount taxpayers pay for education per hour is only $8.16 million. So regardless of your view on the benefits of war versus education, your taxpayer dollars are being spent more on wars on other continents than education in your community.
Don Kusler, writer at the Denver Post and Executive Director of the Americans for Democratic Action, takes a similar stance to Bady, but touches on a subject that is a little different; the loopholes partially free education brings. When public education is free for some, those who need it might not benefit and those who can may take advantage of the system. “Public college aid is currently misallocated. Federal and state tax credits and deductions for individual students to attend higher education cost public treasuries about $70 billion between 1999 and 2009. States also lose money on college-savings plans, which the wealthy can use as tax shelters, but which again do little to help poorer students and their families. Free higher education would restore our nation’s vaunted but now mostly absent social mobility, create a more capable workforce, and make sure that smart, ambitious young Americans from any side of town can fulfill their dreams.” This is an interesting concept that highlights the important facet of public education; it must be free to all. Making public education free would, as Kusler says, allow all ambitious students to attend, not just those with money.
These three men are no longer in school and thus won’t benefit directly from free public education; however, they are taking a stand against the high prices because they have a more long term view and see the consequences of limiting access to higher education. There may be some bias from their background as liberal thinkers, but the arguments laid out by all three had distinctly separate evidence and reasons while drawing the same conclusion; public college should be free. This is why given these arguments, it seems to me that there should be some sort of free education in America, such as free public universities. This doesn’t mean that private universities should be gotten rid of, just that there should be an option for students who can’t afford to go to college to get the education they desire. If we want to secure our nation’s future, we need to start education our future generations now.