Making college tuition free is not a problem

The problem is getting agreement that tuition-free education is worth paying the additional taxes required. I think it is.

There are numerous models of tuition-free education, all of which work with varying degrees of success.

An obvious example of tuition-free education is the public school system. When adequately funded, it works quite commendably. Until recently, the public schools have been of great importance to almost all Americans. These days, support for them is lessening in favor of private and religious education and home schooling.

Some of my Texas grandchildren attend expensive Episcopal schools because their parents find the quality of education in them to be superior to that of public schools. For the most part, I agree with the parents; I sent my own three children to the same private schools for the same reason. But I’m pretty sure that if all that tuition money was paid to the Austin Independent School District, the result would have been remarkable improvement.

Another example: the service academies. The country needs a well-trained military force, so if you can qualify, West Point and the others are free. We also provide substantial financial help to students in other institutions who are in ROTC programs. In consequence, the armed services have a continuing supply of well-educated, well-trained officers. Seems like a good system to me.

Some 24 countries in Europe, Africa, South America and Asia offer tuition-free higher education. (https://www.edvisors.com/plan-for-college/money-saving-tips/colleges-with-free-tuition/countries-with-free-tuition). By the way, under Saddam Hussein, no tuition was charged to attend the University of Baghdad and branches, which boasted a medical school and engagement with higher mathematics beginning in the ninth century.

“Until fairly recently, the United States had a free or virtually free system of public higher education. In 1862, to provide educational opportunity for the ‘sons of toil,’ the U.S. Congress passed the Morrill Act, establishing land-grant public colleges and universities on a tuition-free basis. For roughly a century thereafter, many American public colleges and universities either charged no tuition or a nominal fee for attendance. The State University of New York (SUNY) system — the largest in the nation — remained tuition-free until 1963.” (http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/160949#sthash.HnogBXgh.dpuf)

And now we come to the part where the old man tells about walking 6 miles to school uphill both ways in the snow barefoot. (In fact, I didn’t wear shoes to school regularly until I got to high school, but there was no snow.)

My family could not afford to fund college for my brother and me, but they didn’t have to. We were able to pay for it ourselves.

In 1956, I caught a ride to Austin and enrolled at the University of Texas. At the time, neither it nor any other state institution charged tuition. I rented a room off campus, worked two or three jobs, and graduated with zero debt. My pattern was fairly common.

My brother attended Rice Institute (now Rice University), an elite private college with a specialty in science and engineering. It did not charge tuition. His room, board and books were covered by the Navy ROTC program he enlisted in.

At that point in our history, going to college did not present the financial hurdle it does now, and the country was better off for it.

Private and religious colleges did charge tuition, sometimes substantial amounts, but they never seemed to lack students. They offered something different from the public institutions, such as religious emphasis or the appeal of social status. Students from well-off families attended them. Others managed with scholarships and loans, but without accumulating the crushing loan amounts of today.

The country needs engineers, lawyers, accountants, nurses, doctors, teachers and more. It does not need a hollowed-out core of graduates who are so burdened by debt that they might have been financially better off to choose mowing lawns for a living. It doesn’t seem too burdensome, of course, if the higher education offers a license to make lots of money, as is the case, for example, with graduates of elite law schools, heart surgeons and MBAs. In those cases and similar ones, the cost of tuition can be reasonably viewed as an investment, or start-up cost. But going into debt to become a social worker, teacher, nurse or any number of other modestly paid lines of work is a burden. You’d have to love teaching second grade a whole lot to invest tens of thousands or more to get to do it. And we need second-grade teachers just like we need military officers.

Another point: Learning a trade or becoming a professional is not the only reason to go to college. Freshmen are usually around 18 years old and immature. The human brain is not even fully formed until another seven years has passed. Many students still have no idea what they want to be when they grow up. College should offer students a time to explore and become who they are while being guided and aided by faculty and the overall college structure and by studying some things that do not lead directly to certification as this or that. At its best. college includes plenty of goofing off, coming to terms with alcohol, controlled substances and sex, staying up late arguing ideas, reading books that aren’t assigned, and more. All that stuff is not likely to happen if tuition is high, whether it’s being borrowed or parents are paying it.

One more thing. Tuition-free college is about more than giving poor kids a leg up. It’s about creating more educated voters, a richer culture and a stronger economy. The tax expenditure required is a good investment. We can’t continue to be a country where only the rich and those willing to impoverish themselves pursue higher education.

Providing tuition-free higher education is not a problem. All it requires is the political will.


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