Public Higher Education Once Affordable for All, Should Be Again

Just settled back in after a visit to Iowa. No, I’m not running for President. I mention the trip because it’s a springboard into an issue I’ve wanted to blog on for some time — higher education costs.

I joined my extended family in Iowa City to celebrate the graduations of my nieces — Cecilia (Ceci) from high school and Lola from college. They’ll both be attending their first-choice schools — Georgetown University for Ceci and University of Iowa for Lola, where she’ll begin a doctoral program in physical therapy.

They’ve earned these opportunities. And, of course, we’re all delighted that they’ll move forward on the paths they’ve chosen. Hard to see how they could if their parents hadn’t prudently set money aside — or hadn’t had the extra to save.

The sticker price for Ceci’s freshman year — tuition, room and board only — will exceed the costs of my four years at a high-ranked private college. No way she could could earn more than a fraction while also attending her classes, keeping up with assigned readings, researching and writing the required papers, etc.

I’m not sure she could borrow enough to cover her college costs. If she could, the debt burden she’d graduate with would severely limit her career choices — especially, though not only those that require advanced degrees.

What got my going on this topic, however, is that Ceci’s college education would have cost more than mine if she’d enrolled in one of her home state universities.

That’s what Lola will do. And even if she were as poor as the proverbial church mouse, there’d be no federal grant to defray some portion of her tuition and other costs.

Back in the day, as my late husband Jesse used to say, education at a public university was virtually free for in-state students. I paid $75 a semester in fees for my graduate education at the University of California. Jesse also.

We finished up just in time. Then-Governor Ronald Reagan decided to hike the fees, instituting what was, for all intents and purposes, tuition.

Cal now officially charges tuition, as well as fees. These costs of attendance have grown over time. They’re now about $12,800 a year for in-state students. We can’t blame all this on Reagan, much as some of us would like to — and as some have.

All but three states are spending less, per student, than they were before the recession set in — thus passing on their budget crunches to their public colleges and universities. The institutions have responded by hiking tuition, as well as by cutting faculty positions, course offerings and other resources that help ensure both quality and breadth.

Tuition at four-year public colleges has risen, on average, by 29% just since the 2007-8 school year. In six states, including California, increases top 60%.

These are only recent increases. States and their public higher education institutions began shifting costs to students well before the recession. Real dollar increases were, in fact, bigger three decades ago. But each before and since builds on all that came before.

As you may have read, Senator and Presidential-candidate Bernie Sanders has proposed a pair of bills that would, among other things, provide states with a large financial incentive to eliminate undergraduate tuition and fees at their public colleges and universities.

The Washington Post‘s Wonkblog wasted on time in telling us that the “free college” plan wouldn’t work. Others, including several Post columnists, argued against it for other reasons, e.g., diminished quality, unwarranted entitlement for high-income families.

Still others have argued — and for some time now — that the cost crunches universities face are of their own making. Administrative bloat, inordinate spending on athletics, reluctance to embrace technological substitutes for the traditional classroom model, etc.

I don’t want to wade into that thicket here. My point is simply that something should be done to again make higher education affordable for lower-income students and their families.

It wouldn’t reduce income inequality because that’s a function of how our system distributes the income our economy generates. It surely could increase economic mobility, however, especially for people born at the bottom of the income scale.

There’s “stickiness” at both ends, the research shows. But college graduates were more than five times as likely to move up from the bottom fifth than those without the degree.

We’d still need to invest more — and smartly — in lower-level education and other programs that help level the playing field for children who don’t have the advantages that partly account for my nieces’ academic successes, e.g., ample, healthful food, decent, stable housing, safe neighborhoods, parents with the time, interest and education to read to them, help with homework, take them to interesting places, etc.

But children without these advantages have long graduated from high school with a sound foundation for further education. And they’ve gone on to graduate from public colleges and universities — some with flying colors and without the career-limiting debt burdens too many now face.

We’ve never had genuine equal educational opportunity in this country. We know a good bit about how to expand it. And in some ways, we are. But we need, among other things, to reverse the regression by restoring free — or near-free — public higher education.

This would not only comport with our widely-shared vision of the American dream. It would produce a high return on our tax dollar investment. We’d have a larger, more diverse bank of human capital. We need that, we’re told, to drive economic growth.

But we also need well-educated people free to follow their passion for social justice by providing services and advocacy for poor and near-poor people who, for various reasons, won’t have a college degree — and for their children, who might if we care to make that possible.




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