This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
The mother of all problems in higher education today is high tuition at public colleges and universities, which forces students into decades of debt and makes for-profit schools seem like a plausible alternative.
College used to be free at institutions like the University of California and other state schools not that long ago. In 2014, tuition was abolished in, of all places, Tennessee. And in January, Obama asked Congress to fund a plan making two-year community colleges tuition-free. That’s a good start, but we need more. Making four years of college free is not only fair; it’s also politically possible.
The University of California provides an example of the problem. In 2014, in-state tuition and fees for undergrads totaled $13,222 for one year. And UC isn’t even the most expensive public university: in-state tuition for the current school year at Penn State is $18,464. (The cheapest is the University of Wyoming, at $4,646 for one year.) As a result, two-thirds of college seniors now graduate with an average of $29,000 in student-loan debt. Students are told that incurring this debt is justifiable because a college education increases their earning power and boosts their “human capital”—which, they are told, is a financial advantage that goes beyond net worth. As Forbes explained it, student debt will provide “a solid return on your investment.”
That rationale suggests the ubiquity of market logic today. But there’s an alternative way of thinking: education is a public good. The purpose of education is not just to enable people to increase their lifetime incomes; it’s to help them understand the world, to stimulate the imagination and inspire creativity in all fields. A good society provides opportunities for everyone. We need educated people. And we should be willing to pay to educate them.
Why is tuition so high? The original sin of today’s public university systems can be found in the withering-away of state funding. This is a recent phenomenon: in Ronald Reagan’s campaign to become governor of California in 1966, he ran against the university, but he didn’t raise the tuition after he won. When Reagan left office in 1975, UC tuition cost only $647. It skyrocketed after 1990: $2,700 in 2000, $5,400 in 2005, almost $10,000 in 2010. In California, Democrats won a supermajority in the state legislature in 2012, which let them accomplish political tasks once considered impossible (for example, making abortion more accessible), and last year voters turned drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. But there have been no cuts in tuition; the Democrats agreed only to freeze the increases—and now they’ve declared that the freeze is coming to an end. In response, the UC Board of Regents recently voted to increase tuition by 5 percent per year for the next five years. For residents, the tuition would go from $12,192 now to $15,564.