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

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.

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

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.

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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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