February 2015 Advocate – An argument for free higher education in the U.S.


An argument for free higher education in the U.S.

by Monica Malamud, AFT 1493 Secretary

Back in the spring of 2011, when per unit fees at the California Community Colleges were scheduled to increase by $10 by the beginning of the 2011-2012 academic year, and by another $10/per unit in 2012, I often heard that “California Community Colleges are the best deal in the world”.  That would only be true if “the world” had the same meaning as in “the World Series”.

In the real world, there are countries that have public higher education which is free to students, such as Argentina, Brazil, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Mexico, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Serbia and Sweden.  In some countries admission to free education is competitive, but in others they have an open-access system, just like in the California Community College system.  In many places, free public higher education is not only high in quality, but it is also considered reliably better than a private education.  These examples show that if public education (including post-secondary levels) is valued as a high priority, governments find a way to fund it.

Other countries can offer free higher education, and California also offered it not so long ago.  So the idea of free higher education is not foreign to California.  When the California Community College (CCC) system was established in the sixties, in order “to provide an appropriate place in California public higher education for every student who is willing and able to benefit from attendance” (Ed. Code §66201), the CCCs were free, as were the UC and CSU systems.  But after the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 and the recession in the early 80s, the CCC started to charge $5 per unit.  Then fees went up to $11 and $13 per unit during the 90s, $18 in 2003, $26 in 2004, down to $20 in 2007, back up to $26 in 2009, $36 in 2011 and $46 in 2012.  Instead of charging students more and more, how about realigning priorities and revenue streams so that free public education can be funded?  It can be done and it should be done, for many reasons.

K-12 education is free in the United States, and has been for many decades.  As a country we believe that a K-12 education is necessary for all children, and therefore it is offered free of charge, regardless of the students’ nationality or their parents’ economic status.  But while several decades ago a K-12 education may have been sufficient to get a job that allowed a high school graduate to live independently and support a family, nowadays such jobs tend to require education and/or training at the post-secondary level.

And we do have such education and training available, but it comes at a cost that an 18-year-old cannot afford.  So either his parents are financially responsible, the college student goes into debt, or he tries to obtain scholarships and grants.

Student debt in the United States has reached unprecedented levels, and continues to rise.  I believe it is unfair and unreasonable for a young adult to be forced into debt in order to pay for an education.  Parents spend years trying to teach kids that if they want to buy something they need to save until they have enough money to pay for it, but the whole idea must go out the window when they graduate from high school and there is no way that babysitting or working at a coffee shop will put them through college.

Why not just make sure that education is “affordable” to each student?  After all, there is financial aid available, and in the CCCs 45% of the students qualify for a BOG waiver, for example.  In my opinion, “affordable” is not good enough.  Financial aid is available only to those who heard about it and are savvy enough to deal with the bureaucratic maze.   The only way to guarantee that education is affordable to all is to make it free.

Researching and applying for grants, scholarships or other forms of financial assistance is also an unfair and unreasonable burden for needy students who want to pursue an education.  Oftentimes, students with greater financial needs are the first in their families to aspire to higher education, so they do not have a network of support with knowledgeable adults who can mentor and assist them in navigating the higher education system.  There is paperwork to be filled and deadlines to be met when applying for college, and the difficulties are compounded when the student needs to complete paperwork and meet deadlines for financial aid as well.  To make matters worse, students who are not proficient in English face language challenges when exploring ways to pay for higher education and applying for financial aid, thus jeopardizing their educational pursuits, as well as their successful integration as productive members of society.  Help may be available, but it is only helpful if the student knows it exists in the first place.

When students must pay for higher education, those who come from wealthier families inevitably have more options and encounter fewer hurdles, so students born into richer families can become richer.  The income gap between the rich and the poor in the United States has been widening for some time and will probably continue with this trend, unless we are able to provide access to free higher education.  Education is the best way to provide equal opportunities for a better future.

Better education benefits the entire country, not just individuals.  College graduates have lower unemployment rates and typically earn higher salaries, which has a positive impact on economic development.  They also tend to be more civically engaged, which contributes to a healthier democracy.