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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Tuition-Free Education: A Necessary Future

Low-cost higher education allows the best and the brightest to elevate their economic situations. Free college tuition would help reduce the wealth gap and help fight the “born in poverty means you stay in poverty” problem. Since the founding of the United States, parents worked to make a better life for their children than their parent were able to give them.

This was true for most children born before 1980, but adults in a better economic situation than their parents are now much less common.

This is troubling, because the economic growth from generation to generation has been the engine that fueled the US economy and had allowed most retired people to live comfortably. Our country also needs low-cost apprenticeship programs for skilled workers (office, construction, technicians, and so on). Union busting over the past 40 years has caused a shortage of skilled workers (who used to be educated as apprentices and assistants within the union structure). The apprentice system is thousands of years old, but is dying out in the US.

Before 1960, college was available mostly to the rich. There were some scholarships, but many colleges had only one or two scholarship students enroll each year. Most colleges kept their tuition low enough to appear egalitarian, but high enough to prevent people from using college to elevate themselves out of poverty or the lower middle class. Colleges were funded mostly by earnings on large endowments, such as those from the Carnegie Foundation that helped establish colleges like Texas A&M.

After the Russians launched Sputnik, politicians began to worry that the communists could be preparing to take over the world. To add to this, the federal government needed a way to handle the lash-back and the aftermath of the Vietnam War.  With this in mind, the federal government invested huge amounts of money into improving education at all levels. In particular, financial aid programs were established to allow the best and brightest to attend college, instead of only those whose parents could pay for their education. The number of public colleges increased tremendously.

Then in the late ’70s and ’80s, the wealthy led efforts to reduce taxes (convincing the middle class that it was in their best interest). President Reagan attempted to eliminate all federal money to support education (and partially succeeded). This has returned the country to the “born in poverty means you stay in poverty” problem.

Most of the federal support for college education is now in the form of guaranteeing student loans. However, attending a well-known public university costs over $40,000 per year. With middle class salaries less than half of what they were in 1975 (after accounting for inflation), these loans are bankrupting people and, of course, loans remain even after bankruptcy.

But, as we know, the meme that has grown in these past few decades is that one has to have a baccalaureate degree to get a good job.

I’d like to see free tuition, or at least zero-debt financial aid, become a reality. Having students start their work lives with crushing debt leads to massive problems. A lot depends on what that free tuition model looks like. I think there are two useful models for what it could look like.

One is modern day Germany, where all higher education is tuition free, with some minimal fees. Germany seems to do really well with this system, but Germany has a greater willingness than the US to bear social costs. Simply put: there are less greedy and corrupt then we are.

And the second is public high schools in the US. Politicians fund public education at all levels bitterly, with a poor understanding of the benefits of a well-educated populace. If this attitude carries over to funding college education, then the result is likely to be less positive.

To reach the better outcome, we’re going to have to fix more than just the tuition model. At some point, we, the American people, will have to sit down with our politicians and say, “It’s time to talk about the entire educational financial model.”
It’ll be rough, unpleasant, and they won’t go down without a fight. So bring boxing gloves. Or a Russian.