Should college be free for all?

Students hung a banner from the Cooper Union Foundation Building during a December 2012 occupation.” (Wikicommons)Students hung a banner from the Cooper Union Foundation Building during a December 2012 occupation.” (Wikicommons)

As the Democratic and Republican conventions loom on the horizon, higher education has not been a widely or deeply discussed issue. This is unfortunate. The economic security of the American people requires that each generation be educated to confront the social, environmental and technological challenges of our time and to appreciate the arts and literature, which nourish the personal and national soul.

This calls for greater access to a college or university education. U.S. leaders once hoped that by 2025, 60 percent of the population would be college-educated. So far it is closer to 30 percent. The curse of inequality continues to isolate the ruling elite from the common public. The average male high school dropout might earn $24,000 a year. One with a four-year college degree might make $52,000, while an advanced degree could merit $67,000. On a salary of $62,000 a family might enjoy a comfortable lifestyle; but the average college graduate moves into public life overburdened by college debts.

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A college education today is not a luxury; for many careers it is a personal necessity as well as a social good. Senator Bernie Sanders has proposed that the government should guarantee tuition for every student in a public university, which is 75 percent of the student population. This would be paid for by a tax on Wall Street. Hillary Clinton’s plan would spend $350 million in states that increase their funding, tighten rules on for-profit colleges, have students work for 10 hours a week and allow families to pay according to their income. Her plan would also offer some help to private colleges with high numbers of needy students. Jeb Bush offered the student a $50,000 line of credit to be repaid through federal income taxes over 25 years. Marco Rubio would “fundamentally overhaul higher ed” and supports night school and online degree programs.

A variety of theories explain the rising college costs at public institutions as a recent phenomenon. Critics blame luxurious dormitories and athletic centers and high-salaried administrators and professors. In many cases state legislators have lowered funding year by year, forcing public universities to raise tuition. High tuition can also be falsely perceived as a sign of quality, leading wealthier students to enroll and middle-class strivers to sacrifice and follow.

Proponents of free tuition, at least for the lower middle class, point to Germany, Finland, Norway and Sweden, all of which offer a free college education. It is “free” because fewer students attend college in these countries than in the United States and because citizens are willing to pay much higher income taxes. In the United States, with 50 different state educational systems, California’s public colleges were free until 50 years ago; and Tennessee, Oregon and the city of Chicago have recently provided or will soon provide free tuition for two-year colleges.

Whatever its limitations, the Sanders program has started an important conversation and inspired other government leaders to propose alternatives. Some critics argue that a larger role for Washington in public education would build bureaucracy and stifle entrepreneurship. Others praise President Obama’s plan for the federal government to pay 75 percent of the tuition to public two-year colleges only if the states pick up the rest. This nudges the states to take up again their responsibility for public education.

Free education clearly has its advantages. Costs are spread across the population, and there are fewer financial risks for the individual. Meanwhile, shifting various current expenditures for higher education to direct student tuition support is more efficient; it becomes a collective investment rather than an individual one.

A million people signed a petition in support of the Student Loan Forgiveness Act in 2012. The hope is that this law would liberate the debtors to spend money, build the economy, get jobs and pay their taxes. An interesting proposal that goes beyond President Obama’s initiative and is more focused than Senator Sanders’s comes from the Campaign for Free College Tuition, which offers a full college scholarship at a public or private college to every academically qualified student whose family makes less than $180,000 a year.

What would be the impact of these proposals on Catholic and other private institutions? If the federal government, in fairness, can support needy students who could otherwise not afford Catholic schools, so much the better. But we should recall that traditionally there are two rationales for Catholic education. Unburdened by state control, they strive to achieve academic excellence alongside their secular rivals, but they also teach theology and philosophy and urge love for one’s neighbor and the importance of a more just society. Even in a competitive academic world where affordable education would be available to all, a Catholic education offers something unique. Catholic colleges have little to fear from a robust public education system and should see the overall benefits of an educated and engaged population.

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Joseph J Dunn
2 years 3 months ago
The Editors present an interesting discussion of the various plans for free or more-heavily-subsidized college tuition, debt forgiveness, etc. One statement, though, needs attention: "Senator Bernie Sanders has proposed that the government should guarantee tuition for every student in a public university, which is 75 percent of the student population. This would be paid for by a tax on Wall Street." Those last few words, "paid for by a tax on Wall Street," deserve amplification. The Financial Transaction Tax, sometimes known as the Robin Hood Tax, would impose a small tax on each trade of a share of stock, a bond, or certain other financial instruments. There is considerable analysis of this novel scheme, but one point is widely agreed: "Wall Street" would not bear the cost of this tax. Just as other costs of buying or selling (trading) these securities are passed through to the buyers and sellers, so too would this tax. These traders are not all millionaires and billionaires, since 47 percent of American households own shares of stock. The tax applies to every share of stock, or bond, bought or sold by a mutual fund manager, 401(k) plan administrator, pension fund manager, endowment manager, etc. So middle-class savers, non-profit colleges and private schools, future retirees, even parents and grandparents using a 529 Plan to save for college, will pay the tax, and in many cases will not even be aware of it. Who is least likely to be affected? The billionaires who tend to buy their stocks and bonds and hold them for many years or decades, e.g., Warren Buffett, etc. Sen. Sanders plans to raise $300 billion from this tax. https://berniesanders.com/issues/how-bernie-pays-for-his-proposals/. For a more detailed discussion: "Financial Transaction Tax for U.S. Financial Markets". Robert Pollin, Dean Baker, Marc Schaberg, Eastern Economics Journal, Vol. 29, No. 4, Fall 2003. http://www.peri.umass.edu/fileadmin/pdf/ftt/Pollin-Baker--Securities_Transaction_Taxes.pdf.
Don Carlin
2 years 2 months ago
"Proponents of free tuition, at least for the lower middle class, point to Germany, Finland, Norway and Sweden, all of which offer a free college education. It is “free” because fewer students attend college in these countries than in the United States and because citizens are willing to pay much higher income taxes." The first part is true but the second part is certainly not. While fewer students in ex. Germany attend college (they're very selective), income taxes are not really higher in Europe than in US, that's just a myth. Yes, the federal-level taxes are higher, but remember Americans also have to pay state income and local taxes as well, which Europeans don't. And this is before we get to things like property tax or taxes on business which are a whole lot higher in the US than abroad. With all the taxes we pay in America if anything we should be getting free college and healthcare the way the Europeans do. Or at least have an Abitur system that's selective like in German universities and technical schools.
Willam Nat
2 years 2 months ago
Yes, "Catholic education offers something unique" and that's why Sanders and Clinton hope they will be put out of business. Then no colleges will be pushing pro-life agendas. And put out of business is exactly what will happen. Many catholic colleges barely can make ends meet now. If they have the competition of free PUBLIC colleges, how can they possibly survive?
Robert Koch
2 years 2 months ago
If a person wants to go to college that great....that person can pay for it. I do not want to pay for their college education. People do much better at things that they pay for out of their own labor.
John McGlynn
2 years 2 months ago
I think your position is short-sighted and somewhat un-Christian. The concept of public education, including public colleges and universities, is based on the ideal that an educated population is good for the country as a whole. If the public did not support higher education (yes, through taxes) then far fewer members of that society would be able to attend. I am one of those people. I attended one of the California State Universities (not to be confused with the University of California system). Neither I nor my family could afford a private college. We didn't qualify for enough financial aid (mostly because my older brother was already attending a private college on financial aid). My college was not free, but working part time (20 hours a week) I could afford the fees and the transportation to get there and back (living there was not in the budget). I can admit, paying for it myself is a point of personal pride. But today I look at that same school system 25 years later, and I'm appalled. The cost for attending the CSU now has risen 1000% from the time I started... and that's after adjusting for inflation.... all because taxpayers (like yourself) are cannot see the greater good of investing in higher education through their taxes. I look at my daughter who will be ready for college in a few years, and realize there's no way she can do what I (and her mother) did... work part time at minimum wage to pay for college. The costs are just too high, even for State universities. I see so many young people today not going to college for that very reason... it costs too much with limited job prospects at the end. Look, I'm perfectly happy making the sacrifices necessary (like my parents did) to send my children to Catholic schools before college. And at the same time I'm perfectly happy to pay my fair share of taxes to keep our public schools (primary, secondary, and higher) going so that others have a shot at a fair education. But just because I made the choice to pay for a Catholic education doesn't mean I don't see the value in having my taxes go for public education. A rising tide lifts all boats. Would you rather pay for schools or prisons? I prefer paying for schools. Not only does it serve the greater good, it's the CATHOLIC thing to do...
E.Patrick Mosman
2 years 2 months ago
"Proponents of free tuition, at least for the lower middle class, point to Germany, Finland, Norway and Sweden, all of which offer a free college education." It is blindingly obvious that the author, the politicians and pundits know little or nothing about the procedures for entrance to universities and colleges in these countries. First, the promise of a free college education is based on the premise that the named countries provide free college education without providing any information on the university/college admission terms, conditions, education levels, and performance in the secondary schools based on grades and the results of rigorous exams. Higher education in Norway Acceptance to higher education requires either fulfilled three years of upper secondary school with general university admissions certification. To be accepted as certain lines (for instance engineering) advanced courses in mathematics, physics and chemistry must be passed. Admission to bachelor level programs is coordinated through the Norwegian Universities and Colleges Admission Service based on a point scale, with the highest ranking students offered a place. High school equivalent students must apply to the State Admission Service providing their transcript. All applicants for University/College must provide the course of study with two alternates and their preferred University and two alternates. For example a student might list: Course of Study First, civil engineer, Second, mechanical engineer Third, electrical engineer School First University of Oslo Second University of Trondheim Third, University of Tromsa The Norwegian Universities and Colleges Admission Service or the State Admission office will decide based on the scholastic information provided and after evaluating and comparing all information from others will decide whether the student is accepted, and if so will advise which University and course of study the student will attend and follow. If the student is not accepted for a Public University or College the only recourse is to attend a Private School and pay the tuition. Most European Countries have a similar vetting system which does not guarantee that every student will receive a tuition free University education.
Richard Booth
2 years 1 month ago
You are correct about the lack of knowledge regarding other nations' requisites for qualifying for a college education. I am thinking specifically now of China which, I believe, still gives one test that determines who will become university students and who will become laborers. One test, a tradition as old as can be imagined, is equivalent to the policeman directing traffic in one or the other direction - for the duration!
James McParland
2 years 2 months ago
I graduated from a Jesuit college, and worked, and paid my way through. I will support "free" college education when college presidents, administrators, and tenured faculty across the country agree to work for "free." Let's see how quick America Magazine publishes an editorial supporting that great idea. Oops, I suppose somebody will accuse me of being unChristian.
James Addison
2 years 1 month ago
Hello James, I, like you, know many who were able to work their way through college with minimal if amy loans required. But I believe that is rarely a possibility these days -- and not for lack of virtue but per force of a different economy (actual tuitions, actual wages). Maybe to put things in context, woul you be willing to share some details regarding your experience? Annual tuition? Lodging? Your salary working part time? The job you held? I don't mean for this to sound like a challenge to your claim. Rather, I hope to better understand whether work through college is a realistic option today. Thanks.

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