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