Can America afford to provide free tuition at public colleges and universities? It’s an idea that’s gained some traction thanks to the campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Yet others, such as Hillary Clinton and many Republicans, have derided its $70 billion price tag (which would be shared between the federal government and the states) as too expensive.
As someone who recently completed paying for a young person’s college education, I can state unequivocally that tuition at public institutions here in Minnesota is shockingly high, at least in comparison to the days when I went to school.
I still remember paying my first tuition bill at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis back in 1979. It was a whopping $276 per quarter, or about $800 a year, a sum I could earn in about six weeks working for a truck farmer in what was then largely rural west Bloomington and Eden Prairie. That was true even though my wage was just three bucks an hour.
These days, that same tuition is over $7,000 per quarter, or $21,000 per year, and while the minimum wage is slightly higher these days at $9/hour in Minnesota, a student could work full-time, 52 weeks a year and still not earn enough for tuition at the U of M.
Back in 1979, public college tuition was, for all practical purposes, free because states levied taxes that were high enough to provide the vast majority of funding for public institutions of higher learning. But in the 1990s, here in Minnesota, the focus shifted to tax cuts, under the Republican theory that starving government was the best way to grow the private sector. The policies never delivered on economic growth, but Minnesotans quickly came to feel the effects of starving government, particularly higher education. Tuitions skyrocketed as public funding was slashed and students were forced to pick up more and more of the cost, which they did by borrowing more and more.
It was a trend we saw throughout government, starting in the 1980s. Taxes on corporations and the wealthy, which had for years sustained public investments, were slashed. Back in the 1950s and 60s, remember, taxes paid to build the interstate highway system and thousands of new schools to educate the baby boom generation, to update wastewater treatment facilities to clean up our lakes and rivers, and to send men to the moon. We did big things as a nation because government had the resources to make those kinds of investments in a better future.
Today, we hear only that America can’t invest in the future any more because we don’t have the money— a claim that’s utterly untrue. America has more wealth than ever, but years of tax cuts for the wealthy have drained our public resources and left all that wealth concentrated at the top where it provides little or no public or economic benefit.
Instead of taxing corporations and the wealthy, today we borrow the money from the rich through the sale of bonds that add to our public debt. We have a $19 trillion public debt in the U.S. not because the country is poor or our government spends too much (although its spending priorities are certainly out of whack), but largely due to the collective financial impact of years of tax cuts.
It’s the same with college students, most of whom now leave school with tens of thousands of dollars in debt (owed mostly to corporations and the wealthy), burdening them for years just as they are seeking to begin their lives as productive adults. Young people of my generation never had to worry about that, because we had political leaders who made sure we invested in the right things.
So, to get back to my original question, the answer is easy. Of course, the U.S. can afford free tuition at public colleges or universities. It’s just a question of investing in the future. And the nice thing about investing in higher education is that the payoff for the country is enormous. On average, a bachelor’s degree adds about $750,000 to the lifetime earnings of a student entering the work force. Multiply that times the millions of additional Americans who could obtain a college education with free tuition, and it doesn’t take a genius to see that the country enjoys a huge financial return on such an investment.
As citizens earn more, they pay more in taxes. They also buy homes and furnishings, go to restaurants, take vacations, and everything else that comes with a better living. As they do, it generates more business for the economy as a whole, creating what economists refer to as the “virtuous cycle” that lifts an economy and a society into a shared prosperity. We saw this impact from the GI Bill in the wake of World War II and it completely transformed America for the better.
In a country where leaders made their decisions based on the public good, rather than the interests of a relative handful of campaign contributors, we wouldn’t even be debating free public college tuition. It would have always been free, or nearly free, as it was in the 1970s.
A country where leaders operated in the public’s interest wouldn’t be fixated on tax cuts for the rich. We’d be focused on helping everyone improve their lives, by investing in higher education, better health care, environmental protections, and rebuilding our transportation infrastructure. These are the things we used to do, and we taxed those who benefitted the most from our country’s success to pay for it.
It’s time for Americans to demand that we do that again. Free public college tuition would simply be one of a long list of benefits we could enjoy as a result.