How to make college ‘free’ for all

I went to college for “free” (meaning free to me) decades before Bernie Sanders put it on the national kitchen table for discussion.

My alma mater, where I attended for free

I was educated at Brooklyn College, where Bernie was enrolled for a year before he transferred to the University of Chicago. I believe we were there at the same time, but our paths never crossed.

He was in day school, and I was in night school, working during the day. When he says he came from a low  socioeconomic group, I can best him. Our family lived in “the project.”

To set the stage in terms of the collegiate environment, that was something we weren’t talking about on campus, the environment. No climate change either. Collegiate interests included phone booth stuffing  and a revival of goldfish swallowing.

For the record, I did neither. 

Brooklyn College was part of New York’s municipal college system — some of the others being CCNY (the City College of New York), Queens College and Hunter College. They were tuition free because the leadership of the city believed a college education then — in the 20th Century — was as important to the health of the city as was a high school education in the 19th Century. Nobody called it socialism and no one gave it a second thought. It was as much a part of the fabric of the city as the excellent subway system. 

The municipal college system opened the doors to hundreds of thousands of bright kids who never could have afforded college otherwise, and they improved our nation and our economy. It was an investment with rich returns.

During my student life there, which stretched over a decade, a small tuition was introduced by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller — the multimillionaire — because the “free” education was costly and, I believe, the rest of New York State was jealous. The rest of New York State feels about New York City as the rest of Pennsylvania feels about Philadelphia. 

Which is to say contempt and loathing.

My studies stretched over a decade because one takes fewer classes in night school and I never carried a full academic load because I was the editor of the student newspaper for years. That seemed more important to me than calculus, and I calculated right. That education led directly to a lifelong career. That was a blessing.

Inasmuch as I got a “free” (taxpayer-provided) college education, I should be the last person to oppose it for anyone else. And I won’t.

I will note that higher education is vastly more expensive today and someone has to pay for it. 

Why is it so much more expensive now? I’m not an expert on higher education, but from reading and talking to students and others, I learn that many tenured profs are paid large salaries and teach few courses, dropping much of the load on teaching assistants. One current example: When Elizabeth Warren taught at Harvard she reportedly received more than $400,000 over two years to teach one course.  

Another explanation for the rising costs is the bloated bureaucracy and the appetite for brick and mortar buildings when the rest of society is going online.

Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Julian Castro all are proposing a four-year free ride at public colleges, while other candidates are offering tuition-free two-year community colleges, at least for starters. Some consider income levels, others don’t. 

Some say they will erase all student loans for those currently enrolled and recent graduates with debt. This is just an aside, but if you are going to forgive current student debt, shouldn’t you refund money to everyone who has dutifully paid off past student debt, just to be fair? Why should generosity have a time stamp?

But that is a subject for another day. Let’s talk about tuition.

If we agree that having a better educated populace is a plus for society, then shouldn’t we encourage it?

Yes, we should. 

But are we willing to pay for it?

If you have raised and supported your own children, are you now willing to support someone else’s children?

Some of you say yes, but many say no.

How about having the students, or their parents, pay for it? 

That’s what we have now, with student loans, you say.

I have a better idea. The students will pay back the cost of higher education, but it will come from a very small bite of their future earnings.

Here’s the deal I would offer all students: If you have the grades to be admitted to college, and maintain a passing average, all your bills will be paid. It is free — while you are a student. Once you graduate (or drop out), you will pay 2% of your gross earnings — for life. Under an agreement with the government, 2% will be deducted from all of your future earnings, just as Social Security, or income tax, is now.

In this way, people who have received a “free” education will “pay it back” to fund a pool to pay for the education of those behind them. 

Is 2% too much?  Or too little? I am not a mathematician or an economist. I don’t know. We are talking about a principle.

What do you think a college education is worth? How much more will you earn with it, than without it? Pew Research says $650,000 over a lifetime.  

Isn’t that worth 2 cents on the dollar?

If it turns out you become a teacher in a low-income state and earn only $40,000 a year, your “education” bill is $800. If you become Bill Gates and earn $40 million a year, you pay back $800,000.

The goal is to make college affordable to the maximum number of qualified students. Nothing is more affordable than free, but we know “free” isn’t free.

My plan assigns the cost to those receiving the benefit, but does not crush them under a merciless mountain of debt. It’s more like an annual trickle.

What’s wrong with that? 

19 thoughts on “How to make college ‘free’ for all”

  1. I have an alternative idea for “free college education “.

    Require colleges to remove the social indoctrination course requirements also known as Liberal Arts classes. The old argument was they were required to ensure a well rounded education. What we see today on campuses and in the outcome by way of Millennials is simply a way to force feed a Socialist agenda to get everyone thinking the same way. This will greatly reduce the cost of higher education while having the benefit of cutting off the likes of Elizabeth Warren from the cash cow.

    Second, require a work/study component for major courses of study. Require students to do intern work in their field of study. In a way you were doing this working during the day, working as an editor of the school paper and taking classes.

    1. Right on point with bloated salaries, tenure, and the ridiculous infrastructure cost these colleges undertake. Temple just built a 175 million dollar library. I am a Temple alumnus and am outraged at that cost. How many students could have went there for free with that 175 million? Technology should have made the cost of education plummet but the opposite has occurred. And a big driver of the rising tuition, which far outpaces inflation, is government backed student loans. The group think socialism as stated earlier also is a complete waste of time and money for today’s college student. And everyone should not attend college just as everyone doesn’t deserve to own their own home. Just as the housing market crashed with that rallying cry the value of a college degree plummeted too. If you work hard and have the smarts you should be able to attend college regardless of economic situation. What shouldn’t be encouraged is sending everyone regardless of ability and/or work ethic to college. I have 3 teenagers who will hopefully attend college. I am in favor of greatly reducing the cost of college but vehemently oppose free college, free healthcare, and all the other “free stuff” the socialists promise the populace. Why do we as Americans accept outrageous costs for healthcare and education. Follow the money. There is corruption everywhere. The government is complicit and in bed with the elites. Instead of addressing the root cause of these outrageous costs some in our government are offering to pay for them with our money (those that actually work for a living). Soon you run out of OPM and that’s when it all crashes. God help us at that point!

  2. I paid my own way.
    I did borrow, but paid it back.

    My question is why should tax dollars pay for loans taken for “useless” degrees?

    Woman’s Studies?

    I would be ok with loans or free to trade schools.

    1. Two different issues. There are majors in golf courses management, too. I did a column once on weird degrees. This is who pays. It is the student him/herself on a deferred basis.

    2. “Learn to Earn” sounds good at first, but here’s a thought to ponder.

      Without Sociology, we couldn’t/wouldn’t be able to figure out a way to end mass poverty, starvation, etc worldwide. Those are the folks who do that sort of thing, as “capitalism” has failed them for whatever reason (usually due to racist policies, etc, but I digress.)

      Psychology? Tell the person who’s son or daughter just committed suicide that Psychology is useless. Or how to figure out how to stop that maniac from killing again. Or pull you out of your depression. All Psychology.

      Woman’s Studies? In a world where a group of men call feminists “Femnazis” (because wanting equal rights is the same as invading Poland?) and in which women are still paid 80 cents to a man’s dollar, and the people who brutally rape women walk free because “boys will be boys,” Women’s studies is absolutely necessary. Don’t think so? Ask your wife about those issues. Or your daughter.

      Dance. During WWII, Winston Churchill ordered that government funding for the arts would continue unobstructed in the UK. When asked why, he replied “If not, then what are we fighting for?” By NOT funding the arts, we, as a nation, say “only rich kids get to participate.” Art, dance, music, writing- they give us ways to communicate when other ways are insufficient. And if only rich kids got to participate? Well rock music would never have existed for one. Or blues. Or any American music form.

      And yes, I can analyze any of the “useless” majors you wish.

      “Learn to earn” creates WORKERS- cogs in a machine. A well rounded college education includes the arts, sciences… to create intelligent articulate CITIZENS.

      See the difference?

  3. Stu would your 2% payroll assessment be tax deductible from federal state or local taxes? As you illustrate it here, I don’t think should be.

  4. Stu – well thought out and a proposal that should be advanced! I went to West Virginia University’s journalism school and my parents paid the first two years, I took out PHEA loans for the last two. Graduation brought a monthly bill of $48.88 for 10 years for a loan of $10K. My first job paid $175/week in 1980 at a weekly paper. That loan at today’s tuition would be $125,000! Two years later I landed a journeyman’s job at a union paper and am forever grateful for being a Newspaper Guild (later CWA) member. I was able to pay off the loan early and had a great career at that paper in the 1980s. I know if I was a student these past 15 years or so I doubt if tuition loan payback would have let me live the great career and life I did as back then. Congress needs to step in and do something about this major issue that is holding so many young people back such as advancing your solid proposal!

  5. When I was 18 my mom went back to work and earned enough to put me through college. It was a private college, so it was expensive by the mid-1980s standard. I returned in the late 1990s for my Masters degree and one course cost as much as a full semester (five courses) had a decade before.

    What job could a mom get now that pays the college tuition for her daughter? (Dad’s salary was used for mortgage, taxes, utilities and other such boring expenses.)

  6. Stu is on the right track here but does not address what the commenters have pointed out. What is the goal of a college education? Why should everyone have a college education? Many college graduates end up working in jobs that have absolutely nothing to do with their collegiate field of study.

    There are specific fields of study that I do not believe taxpayers should have to pay. “Free College” diminishes the perceived value of a college education (something that is decreasing every year).

    The US is a country that has no civil service requirements. If you are a freeloader, the US is a great place. JFK did not say, “Ask not what you can do for your country, ask what your country can do for you!” for a good reason! Do you want to go to college for free? Well, how are you going to do to pay your country back? A lifetime tax is interesting, but what about all of the people that do not pay their taxes?

    Free college sounds a little too “socialist” and Americans hate socialism. It ain’t gonna happen. I see college loans becoming the norm, Intro to Debt 101. The majority of Americans buy their first homes by taking out mortgages that cost more than the home they are buying. It is engrained into the American mentality. Student loans will just follow the same path.

    1. I never said everyone should go to college and I am showing the truth — nothing “free’ is free, and the beneficiaries are paying for their education, at the end. If they don’t pay, as with income tax, jail them. (Actually employers could withhold, as they do for SS and IRS.)

  7. I didn’t know you went to the University of Chicago, Stu. Bully on you, Mate.

    More import is the point of your column: Sound, compelling and worthy of consideration.

  8. When the feds opened the money tap to make loans for college, two things happened: (1) colleges and universities upped their costs (and why not? Uncle Sugar was really paying the bill); and (2), numerous ‘colleges’ sprung into being, offering ludicrous degrees…paid for by — yes, children, you guessed it: Uncle Sugar.

    As the wag said to the young woman who had two masters degrees, one in Italian Renaissance Poetry and the other in Women’s Studies, “You’ll be the smartest waitress at the olive Garden.”

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