Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Free Public Higher Ed Goes Viral

When I published my book Why Public Higher Education Should be Free two years ago, I felt like a lone, crazy voice in the wilderness, but recently we have seen many initiatives to attain the goal of debt-free public higher education.  President Obama helped to shape the debate by promoting a plan to make the first two years of community college free. The president’s policy drew from the Tennessee experiment with free communitycollege and other similar programs that have emerged around the country.  Following the president’s lead, members of Congress signed on to a resolution to make all public higher education debt free, and presidential contender, Bernie Sanders has made free public higher education the cornerstone of his campaign.

The central argument I have been making is that our current system does not work: in the last three decades, we have spent trillions ofdollars on financial aid and higher tax breaks, and the result is that students coming from families in the top income quartile have a 77% chance of attaining acollege degree, and students from the bottom 25% have a 9% rate.  Moreover, not only have students been forced to take out over $1.3 trillion dollars of debt, but as more students go to college, the US has moved from 1st to 12th in college attainment.  

Just as many of our K-12 schools have become self-segregated by class and race, our institutions of higher education have also becomeseparate and unequal. Low-income Black and Brown students tend to go to low-funded community colleges with low graduation rates, while wealthier students attend wealthy universities with high graduation rates.  In fact, the celebrated California Master Plan was founded on a principle of hierarchy and has resulted in a system of  de facto segregation.  

In order to make higher education an engine of social mobility and not a generator of economic inequality, we have to rethink how we fund these institutions.  Instead of using an ad hoc voucher system that provides aid to individual students, the federal government needs to send funds directly to institutions with a strict set of requirements, including a maintenance of state funding, a cap on tuition and room and board increases, and a financial aid system that makes the total cost of attendance free for low- and moderate-income students.

What needs to be realized first is that no single state or institution can fix this problem on its own.  There has to be a joint federal-state-institution compact because we have aid coming from all of these different sources.  Bernie Sanders believes that we should fund this type of program through a new financial transaction tax, but as I argued on a recent radio show and on a Fox News debate, a more effective strategy would be to use money currently going to tax breaks and tax exemptions to make higher education free and accessible. 

In the current system, wealthy individuals and wealthyinstitutions are being subsidized through taxation policies catering to thesuper-rich. Not only do private universities with tax-exempt, multi-billion dollar endowments allow wealthy individuals to escape taxation through charitable giving, but these institutions run tax-exempt enterprises without paying local property taxes.  Meanwhile, wealthy individuals have turned to 529 College Savings plans as a new tax shelter

All of the tax breaks dedicated to high-income individuals and institutions help to decrease state and federal tax revenue, and this reduction of funds creates an environment where politicians can say they have no money for public higher education.  What citizens have to fight for is integrated, debt-free public higher education, and this can be done by taking on the higher ed tax subsidies for the wealthy.   


For more updates on free public higher education, click here.  

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