Socialist Alternative: Why We Need Free Public Higher Education Now

From the Socialist Alternative website:

We Have Nothing to Lose But Our Debts

The movement for free public higher education is gaining momentum. What was only recently seen as a progressive pipe dream has now become a public debate, and several states – including Tennessee, Mississippi, and Oregon – have passed or are considering legislation to make community colleges free. Meanwhile, President Obama has called on all states to eliminate community college tuition and, in May, Senator Bernie Sanders introduced a bill to make every public college and state university in the country free.

Though the legislation proposed by Sanders has little chance of succeeding, it is clear that the neoliberal agenda of austerity and privatization is increasingly untenable, and support among the 99% for making free public eduation a reality is growing. But actually winning will require a mass movement of students, educators, and activists.

What Went Wrong?

It wasn’t that long ago that many of the country’s public university systems were entirely or mostly free. Both the University of California and the City University of New York charged little or no tuition until the 1970s and 1980s, when a fiscal crisis and conservative reaction led to steady increases in tuition and fees at public universities and colleges across the country. Not surprisingly, many of the colleges hit the hardest were those with the biggest populations of working-class students and students of color.

This trend has many dimensions, including charter schools in K-12 and massive construction projects at state colleges and universities, including ever-larger sports stadiums. Boards of trustees, stacked with corporate executives, have raised pay for presidents at many schools to corporate CEO levels, while raising tuition, cutting services, and replacing good-paying campus jobs with low-paying jobs. This includes a steady increase in low-paying, part-time, adjunct faculty positions. There has also been a connected ideological goal of convincing ordinary people that education is not a right to which they are entitled but, rather, a good that they purchase as consumers.

One of the biggest attacks on public higher education is in Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker has cut $300 million from the university budget and is moving to eliminate academic tenure. At the University of California, in-state tuition and fees doubled in less than a decade, rising from an already unaffordable $6,802 in 2006 to almost $14,000 in 2015. Meanwhile, at the City University of New York, a system with a historic mission to serve the poor and working class of the city, tuition and fees have increased almost 40% since just 2010. To add insult to injury, federal Pell Grants, which help the neediest students attend college, were cut in 2015. As a consequence, student loan debt now exceeds credit card debt in the United States, averaging $35,000 per borrower – and total student loan debt in the U.S. now far exceeds $1 trillion.

Make Big Business Pay

The effects of this corporate offensive on education have been disastrous. Currently in the U.S., only about 50% of students who attempt to obtain a bachelor’s degree do so within six years. As a consequence, graduation rates for 25- to 34-year-old students have fallen sharply compared to other countries where tuition is free. Of the 28 countries compared in 2012 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. was ranked 19th.

At one level, the solution to this affordability crisis is simple. We must fight to fully fund higher education, eliminate tuition and fees, provide cost-of-living and book stipends to all students who need them, and return public colleges and universities to their original mission: to provide a rigorous and broad education to the children of the mass of working- and middle-class Americans. Though such a move might sound radical, it would not only lead to greater economic, racial, and social equality, it would also drastically improve college access and graduation rates, while actually reducing costs.

The actual funding increase needed to make college free for everyone who wished to attend is far less than you might think. As Ann Larson and Michael Checque argued recently in Jacobin magazine, if you consider all of the money state and federal governments already spend, the total cost to make public higher education free would be just $15 billion. To give some sense of how little money this is, consider that the Pentagon’s F-35 fighter jet program was $163 billion over budget!

Making higher education free is also much more cost-efficient for society as a whole. The neoliberal agenda has compelled public institutions to increasingly compete against each other, as well as private colleges, in order to attract more tuition-paying students, wasting billions on advertising, stadiums, luxury dormitories, and recreation centers. Remove tuition and competition, and you remove the dual incentives to waste money on nonacademic needs while prioritizing the academic mission of our universities.

Build a Broad-Based Movement to Win

While the economic challenges are easily surmountable, we will not win free public higher education for all without a massive and sustained movement of students, educators, debtors, and all those interested in fighting for a society that works for all – and not just the 1%. It is time to take back public education from the corporate forces that will end up destroying it!

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