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A highly educated populace is not a luxury in the 21st century – it is a necessity. A combination of governmental and economic forces has combined in recent years to limit access to higher education to a smaller subset of the American population. Clearly, changes to the higher education system and the systems which finance it need to be made if the American economy is to grow in the decades to come.

Some have proposed a system in which higher education be funded entirely by the taxpayers. Maintaining this type of system nationwide is a noble thought, but fraught with problems. On the other end of the spectrum, some argue that the government has little or no business in the realm of higher education. On grounds of fairness their arguments have some merit, but they do not address the fundamental economic and social problems created by lack of access to higher education.

Until these issues are approached from a fresh perspective the problems will only feed upon themselves. The answer is not at one end or the other of the ideological spectrum. In fact, it is not ideological at all – It is practical. Minimizing the government’s role is important for a host of reasons. Eliminating it entirely is not a viable option.

Arguments for Free Education

Many proponents frame their support for free higher education in moral terms. Our ancestors have fought, died, worked and protested for us to have this right

The last decade has seen Universities move “increasingly out of the reach of the lower classes” (Page and Delbanco, 2009). Tuition increases have outpaced inflation. Students are often forced to juggle one or more jobs to afford college.

Meanwhile wage levels have been stagnant. The recession has exacerbated the situation as parents are being asked to contribute more at a time when other expenses are higher and the unemployment rate hovers near 10%.The last thing we should do in a time of economic crisis is turn out a generation of young people less educated than their parents. Leaders as diverse as Governor of Massachusetts Deval Patrick and Bush Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings agree that a high school diploma is no longer enough (Page and Delbanco, 2009).

The State of California made a commitment to free higher education in the 1960s. It crafted a master plan that “has succeeded beyond all expectations” (University of California, 2007). That experiment shows that through wise planning a system of taxpayer funded Colleges and Universities can serve the public effectively.

Arguments Against Free Education

Access to higher education is not, and never has been, a right. It is not listed in the Constitution or in the Bill of Rights. Morality is another question, but it is clearly not a “right”.

The idea that all citizens have access to free higher education is noble, but is simply not economically feasible.

The prospective burden for the American taxpayer is untenable. The U.S. already has a nearly unimaginable nation debt of $12 trillion. The states are in an equally difficult bind. In California, where education Estimates of the cost of educating all students currently in college start at $40 billion yearly and go up. Removing the free market element from college pricing would only encourage higher prices. In addition thousands of new students would come into the system at a time when tax revenues are not increasing. In California highly subsidized but still not able to keep up with tuition hikes, a full-blown economic crisis exists.

The California Master Plan of 1960 affirmed the proposition that higher education should be free to state residents. Housing and other fees were not included. In the following years; tuition for out-of-state students soared. Then fees to all students began to increase to make up for budget shortfalls “effectively ending the no-tuition policy” (University of California, 2010).

The success of the GI Bill is often touted as a reason for free higher education. The bill did expand opportunity and helped fuel the economic boom of the 1950s. This is much different than expanding higher education to the entire population. The taxpayers can absorb the number of students under the GI Bill. Asking them to fund millions of college students every year could be the straw that breaks the back of the economy. In that scenario a college degree would be of little value.

Analysis and Conclusion

The establishment of free and mandatory grade school education was won of the primary reasons the United States became the world’s most powerful economy in the 20th century. Unfortunately, this particular template is not applicable to college education. When the American grade school system was established there was little or no private competition. In other words, the schools were never businesses.

Universities are businesses in which the only control on prices is market competition. Unless the government is willing to institute price controls on these institutions taxpayer funding will never be able to keep up, as seen in California. Price controls are also not advisable because they could hurt the quality of the taxpayer funded schools and create a larger gap between the rich, who can afford to attend elite private schools, and everyone else.

Part of the problem with today’s system of financial aid is that it benefits those higher in economic status than is necessary. The last ten years have seen a shift from need-based to merit-based aid which often benefits wealthier families (Reed, Jr., and Szymanski, 2004). Grant-based aid has also diminished in proportion to interest bearing loan-based aid causing many to graduate with massive amounts of debt or not to be able to attend at all. Redirecting this aid toward need-based applicants could better help ensure access to all. Loan-based aid should be shifted toward those who don’t qualify based on need. The cost of a student’s particular program of study should also figure in to the types and amounts of aid given.

Asking students who are able to invest in their own education is not necessarily a bad thing. Students become vested in their own success are transitioned toward the responsibilities of adulthood. The government should assist students who choose to work in lieu of piling up loan debt. Additional tax credits are one way in which this could be done. For their part Universities can be more flexible about granting course credit for work experiences.

Some schools like The University of North Carolina have announced plans to cover the entire cost for poor students. Efforts like this can be encouraged through tax breaks and research grants. For most students there does not have to be an all or nothing approach. An innovative program to help a student through a particularly hard month or a no-interest payment plan for tuition could make all the difference. The Federal Government is often too blunt an instrument for what really needs to be done.

Featherstone writes “College affordability is not just a student issue. It is about what kind of society we are going to have…” (2009). In this she is correct. It is not just an issue of dollars and cents. That issue must be given its due, however. Fairness for one may create unfairness for many. Affirming the rights of one may negatively affect the lives of many. To use a cliché but truthful phrase, “nothing in life is free”.

America simply cannot afford free higher education. Free tuition also does not guarantee a good education. Access to college for all is a societal goal not a right. Finally, a high degree of government participation in the process is ultimately counterproductive. The good news is that government can play an effective role by adjusting what it does now and requiring more accountability from schools, professors and students.

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