Why can’t college be free?


by Mary Ellen Flannery

Are you tired of hearing that there’s no money for public education? So are the authors of three new working papers, recently released by the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education (CFHE).

Adequately funded, high-quality higher education is not an impossible dream, according to CFHE, a grassroots organization whose goals for public higher education have been endorsed by NEA’s National Council for Higher Education. Each working paper, written by unionized faculty and staff members, outlines a common-sense strategy for increasing funds to public institutions of higher education and relieving students of the rising cost of tuition.

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“We know the costs of a college education have been shifted from states onto poor and middle-class Americans, and far too many families are either drowning in debt or putting off their education altogether,” said NEA’s Mark F. Smith, a higher-education policy analyst. “Common-sense solutions to the funding crisis are welcomed.”

Research shows that people who go to college are much more likely to get jobs, earn more money, and contribute to a stronger America. With that in mind, NEA believes that high-quality, low-cost higher education should be accessible to all Americans who want it. But how do we achieve it in the current economy? State funding to public higher education declined 7 percent in 2012. And some states had much worse cuts—25 percent in Arizona, 41 percent in New Hampshire, and 21 percent in Wisconsin. These kinds of cuts lead to shocking rises in tuition.

This does not have to be the new normal. Campaign organizers want you to take a look at the three papers and join the search for new possibilities to fully fund public higher education and make it accessible and affordable. Brief descriptions are below – but the full text can be found at FutureOfHigherEd.com.

  1. The “Free Higher Ed” paper by Bob Samuels, president of the University of California-American Federation of Teachers, figures out how much it would actually cost to pay the tuition for all Americans in public colleges and universities. (It was about $127 billion in 2010.) Do we have that money? Samuels suggests we do. The federal government already spends more on Pell grants and student loans, plus it gives away billions in higher education tax credits. “How close could we come to making all public higher education free just by using current resources in a more effective manners?” he asks.
  2. The “Reset Button” paper by a University of California team takes a closer look at California, in particular. The question is: what would it take to “reset” student fees to 2001 levels and also restore access and quality of the state’s public higher education? The answer? About $48 per median California taxpayer.
  3. The third paper, by Rudy Fichtenbaum, president of the American Association of University Professors, proposes a new “financial speculation tax” upon selected Wall Street transactions. Similar taxes have been proposed in bills such as Sen. Tom Harkin’s “Wall Street Fair Share Act,” and previous studies have estimated the possible revenue as up to $353.8 billion a year. “We could go a long way toward providing everyone in our country with the opportunity to receive a high quality college education,” Fichtenbaum writes. “And there would be revenue left over.”

Reader Comments

  1. If our children need to be educated more for this country to have a future, then we need to do it. It is cheaper then prison and welfare, etc!

  2. If educators did what my teachers did back in the 50’s and 60’s, that is, instill indignation in their students, the kids would be out on the streets demonstrating, instead of working full time at Starbucks. Just do it, man.

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