Time for Free Higher Education

Let’s leave advanced degrees out of the equation and think about this a minute.

Several current societal ills are directly related to the ever-increasing cost of tuition: First, employers and chambers of commerce believe we need a better-educated workforce. Second, massive student-loan debt has prompted college graduates to delay moving out of their parents’ homes and otherwise contributing to the economy. And third, the high cost of college is widening the gap between the rich and poor (and the white and the black) to the point that there are actually riots in the streets.

A Brief History

College tuition has been around a long time, but saving for school wasn’t always an insurmountable challenge. In 1980, full-time tuition at the U of M was $500 A YEAR! because about 75 percent of the costs were publicly funded. And the minimum wage was $3 per hour, which meant that literally any full-time summer job could pay for a year of tuition and a good chunk of living expenses. ($3 x 40 per week x 12 weeks = $1,440). Compare that to the $8,070 needed to fund a year at Metropolitan State at $8 per hour: ($8 x 40 per week x 12 weeks = $3,840 – less than half of what you need, and this even assumes you don’t live anywhere or eat anything.)

I picked 1980 because that’s when former Gov. Tim Pawlenty graduated from the U of M. From 1980 to 1995, tuition hikes tripled the CPI, mostly due to decreased public funding. This trend apparently ebbed due to the good economy in the late 1990s, but came back in full force when Pawlenty increased tuition by 60 percent from 2002 to 2005, a trend that has only slowed a bit since then.

Another great 1980 factoid is that was about the last year that two-year technical colleges were part of school districts and completely free.

An Educated Workforce

Business leaders have long bemoaned the lack of educated workers, but have also opposed public subsidies for higher education.

This makes no sense – the best way to encourage people to get educated is to make it easy to do so. This is especially true for people who want to learn a trade. In the past, we obviously figured out how much it cost to educate people for various careers and subsidized it accordingly. We can do it again.

As for four-year degrees, public colleges need to stop trying to be all things to everyone. When I was on a Citizens League committee for higher education, everyone stated the need for school to teach critical thinking skills so that people could understand the big picture and be easily trained as they transferred from job to job and industry to industry because people will have 5 to 7 job shifts over their careers.

In other words, these high-ranking policymakers were advocating for a traditional liberal arts education.

This is at odds with the current situation, in which no businesses will hire anyone who requires a shred of training. Business leaders were the driving force behind the myriad ultra-specific degree programs now offered at many colleges and universities. Understanding the big picture is not huge positive for most job applicants.

Massive Student-Loan Debt Hurts the Economy

While it’s great that politicians like Al Franken are finally trying to address student debt, loan forgiveness programs address the problem after the fact. Programs like the Peace Corps, Vista and Americorps have attempted to ease debt by forgiving large portions of loan debt, but let’s face it – not everyone is cut out for the Peace Corps.

And to be perfectly honest, because most Americorps positions require a bachelor’s degree, they are real full-time jobs and should be paid as such.

The debt burden not only prevents college grads from participating in the economy as consumers, it can discourage people from taking chances on new enterprises such as starting a new business or pursuing creative projects that could pay off in the future.

A Widening Economic Gap

Ostensibly, student loans give everyone the same opportunity to pursue education, but that theory does not work in practice. Besides not having the means to save for college, people with low incomes are less apt to take the necessary steps to aggressively pursue education, even if they have the aptitude, as described in this Vox article.

The convoluted process of getting financial aid and scholarships is often daunting enough to take higher education off the radar for many families. Free higher education would make it realistic enough to be an incentive students could work toward. (To a smaller extent, when I interviewed several retired Tech-Ed instructors, they all mentioned the prospect of a free technical education as the light at the end of the tunnel that kept them from dropping out of high school).

Another problem is that people with lower incomes are more reluctant to take on debt. This means their education will not be an equivalent opportunity.

Yes, most students have jobs, but those with serious debt aversion are less likely to get as much out of their courses and less likely to take on unpaid internships or volunteer opportunities that will pay off in the future.

Finally, free higher education could curb the impact of for-profit colleges, which have expanded greatly since 1980. For-profit colleges seem to prey on people from families that don’t have a tradition of attending college, as detailed in this Minnpost article, and are currently in dead-end jobs.

With a free option, rather than a somewhat-reduced price, fewer people will be seduced by television ads that promise an easy path to stability. (What I find especially galling about this ad by Globe College is that they use the fact that they require additional state oversight – a result of past malfeasance – as a selling point).

Free-market Experiment Has Failed

The libertarian ideal of allowing any educational corporation to “compete” for the funding (student loan dollars) attached to the students they attract has gotten us into our current mess.

Free education doesn’t mean unaccountable education. Oversight and academic standards will still exist. In fact, students might study harder in order to gain admittance to the program of their choice. Majors will still be declared, which, as always determine who gets into upper-division classes.

As for abusing the system, I just don’t see a lot of people taking random sociology classes just because they are free (and if they do, it would be on a space available basis, just like University extension classes do for senior citizens). Most people have better things to do with their time.



One thought on “Time for Free Higher Education

  1. I’m with you here Ed. When my pops went to Dunwoody to become an electrician, I think he graduated with the whole thing costing him around $1200. He had a job before he graduated. I can’t afford one semester on that money, despite graduating.

    It’s a shame that businesses no longer are willing to fork out any money for on-the-job training. We as students are forced to pay for the training once given by businesses.

    Considering the fact that student loan debt has surpassed credit card debt, a huge number of millennials have been forced to take on a ton of debt before even leaving their parents houses.

    It’s a ridiculous situation that needs to be fixed.

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