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Americans can afford to educate everyone, and three new papers show us how

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REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn
I refuse to stop dreaming. We can afford to educate our people, all of them.

They call themselves “dreamers,” and they represent hope for America. They are young people who were brought to the United States as children. Dreamers refer to the Dream Act, which at the federal level provides a path to citizenship by completing college or through military service. At the state level, dreamers would qualify for in-state tuition at public colleges and universities.  

Jeff Kolnick
Jeff Kolnick

A college education is more than work-force development; it’s about keeping dreams alive, and in America we can still afford to dream big. Sadly, disinvestment in public higher education, of the kind made clear last week by Gov. Mark Dayton, is making college a distant dream for everyone.

We are being told to stop dreaming because times have changed.  We need to tighten our belts — especially government.

The reasoning goes something like this: We simply can’t afford to go back to the days when higher education was adequately funded, tuition was low, and students could work their way through school with little or no debt. We have no choice but the “new normal’ of slashed funding for higher education, skyrocketing tuition, and crippling debt for students.

'Reform' = watered-down education for the less well-off

We are told that we cannot provide affordable education for native-born students, let alone dreamers. We have watched student-loan debt grow to $1 trillion while “reform” masquerades as a watered down (often online) education for middle- and working-class students.

I refuse to stop dreaming. We can afford to educate our people, all of them. And we can do it in a liberal-arts setting with small classes and full-time faculty.

Three working papers recently released by the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education show us how possible it is to turn things around.

Cutting through the political rhetoric

All three papers cut through the political rhetoric and with some pretty simply math show that funding higher education through public means rather than through skyrocketing tuition and massive debt is achievable.  And they offer three concrete ways to go about it.

Robert Samuels makes the case that we are already spending enough public money on higher education to make it free. Samuels multiplies the number of students at public universities (6.4 million) and community colleges (4.3 million) by the average tuition, room and board for each type of institution ($14,870 and $7,629) and comes up with $127 billion for the academic year 2009-2010. Tuition alone amounts to about $56 billion. He then notes that in 2010 the federal government spent $35 billion on Pell grants and $10 billion on student-loan subsidies, and well over $40 billion more on 529 College Savings Plans and other tax expenditures.

On top of that, the states spend at least $10 billion on financial aid for higher education (or about $95 billion spent on fincial aid). Even for a history major, the arithmetic shows that free public higher education is within our grasp, even while maintaining public money for scholarships to nonprofit liberal arts colleges.

Stan Glantz and Eric Hays show that we can return to adequate funding of public higher education without breaking the budgets of states or taxpayers. They have calculated the “reset” button for California higher education back to the year 2000, when funding was not perfect, but adequate. The cost to “reset” for the median taxpayer in California was only $48 a year. For a person in the middle of the income scale, the “reset” would cost the equivalent of about a tank of gas or less than dinner for four at Applebees. In Minnesota, the reset number is much the same.

Cut tuition, get back to full-time faculty

Rudy Fichtenbaum calls for a small financial speculation tax, as was just approved by the European Union for several nations (the tax would raise anywhere from $353 to $177 billion a year). He then shows what we could do with $75 billion. Fichtenbaum suggests using $28 billion to cut tuition in half at state-run institutions, and the remaining $47 billion would go to instruction to hire some 394,000 tenure-track faculty at state universities and another 155,000 faculty at community colleges, thus virtually ending the crisis of part-time work in higher education.

These papers show that we need not burden students with debt while crushing their dreams. We must shake off the poverty of imagination. We can afford to dream if we will look at the facts and demand the world we want. 

Jeff Kolnick is an associate professor of history at Southwest Minnesota State University.

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Comments (4)

Heard it before

It's just like with hunger. There is enough food to go around, but most assuredly it will not go around. As a youth I used to hear that a healthy, educated nation was the best way to maintain freedom. Apparently that was not true. We could educate everyone and have an intelligent populace, but that is not really what is wanted by the power players, or we would in fact have it.

The numbers don't add up to "everyone"

The numbers really only refer to those currently enrolled, not everyone. And even if we only counted those already enrolled, the numbers don't add up. They CAN'T add up, or no one would be paying tuition at all. The numbers are in the wrong columns. For example, the amount that states spend on higher education should be on the cost side of the equation, suggesting that the REAL tuition (if you start from the baseline of 0) is more than double the calculated averages. Another example is that the US government actually makes a net profit off of student loans, so the subsidies are temporary, and not actually a long term expenditure.

Not that I'm saying education shouldn't be attainable and that we have a responsibility to our future to make sure that it is. I'm saying that fudging the numbers doesn't put us in a realistic place to address the problem. Realistically, many of those people who go to college probably shouldn't have--at least not when they did. Four years of further education simply isn't proper for many of them. 2 years might be more appropriate, or an apprenticeship of some sort.

Higher education no longer has a role in simply providing an education. Its role has become to qualify people for jobs. It's become so common to have an education with so little practical application to the jobs available, that many businesses pretty much demand it as a supposed sign that young employees "have what it takes to finish something." I suspect, really, it's a way to get young employees who are desperate to pay off their educational debt and so don't question the value of their employment.

As long as higher education is in high demand, the cost is going to be high. There are too many potential consumers to have to be careful about the price tag. In the end, those that really probably should have waited to get a higher education, or skipped it altogether, subsidize those that colleges REALLY want, anyway--scholarship holders, researchers, and athletes. Schools don't really care so much that someone's in it for the MRS degree because they're subsidizing costs that the states won't pay anymore to fund those who either benefit highly from their education, or at least provide the school the recognition they need to get even more and better students in their doors.

click on the papers to read them in full

The numbers do add up. States spend about $80 billion a year on direct support for state colleges and universities. Tuition is about another $56 billion. Financial aid adds up to more than $95 billion when you include lost revenue from tax expenditures. Thus, the cost of financial aid, as it is now carried out, is greater than the total tuition paid at public colleges and universities by at least $39 billion dollars. Those are the numbers. Look them up.

Couple questions

@Rachel, is the "state financial aid" the article and papers refer to appropriations given to universities and state colleges, or is it state financial aid to college students? Not really sure but in either case the numbers are close. I agree with you that their findings show that we could pay for everyone currently enrolled, not everyone, a major difference (considering only roughly a third of people have college degrees. but this also discusses community and presumably technical school funding as well).

Do these papers talk about what implications there would be to tax revenue if education credits, student loan interest deductions, etc would be taken away? Rachel mentions the fed makes a net profit on student loans, what would the comparison be in this case?

I think Rachel brings up some good points regarding higher education - the value of a degree is diminished if everyone has one, and we need to find ways to ensure qualified and motivated would-be degree seekers have access to education (first) and everyone else second. But I think this proposal does do a good job discussing better access to other degree types - community, technical, associates, etc schooling.