Last month, during the second Democratic presidential debate, the Iowa news anchor Kevin Cooney said that only 63 percent of students who enroll in college go on to graduate, and asked if Senator Bernie Sanders’s proposal to make public colleges and universities tuition-free wouldn’t be "throwing a lot of money away." Hillary Clinton responded by citing another group of suspect beneficiaries — the children of parents who could afford to pay tuition. She declared herself against "making college free for Donald Trump’s kids."
Cooney’s question and Clinton’s response have a certain appeal, especially when the 2013 graduation rate was somewhat worse than Cooney indicated, and 81 percent of high-income high-school graduates already attend college, compared with 51 percent of their low-income counterparts. Who could object to making the cost-effectiveness of such a comprehensive program a primary concern?
Yet both Cooney and Clinton were indulging in some degree of misrepresentation. Cooney’s numbers fail to take into account those students who are forced to end their studies precisely because they can’t afford to continue, and Clinton’s barb glides over the fact that Sanders’s plan doesn’t apply to tuition at the private institutions attended by Trump’s children.
More important, though, is that Cooney and Clinton’s concerns miss the transformative social vision at the heart of the Sanders proposal — which is to say, they miss a lot. His idea is that everyone in this country, regardless of background and status, should share fully in the benefits and responsibilities that come with living here. The commitment to tuition-free public higher education is a central component in building a new social compact.
Since the 1970s, tuition and fees at public institutions have increased by more than 350 percent, while pay for working- and middle-class households has stagnated. As a result, the cost of a public-college education now accounts for almost 15 percent of the average family’s annual income; 40 years ago it was about 4 percent.
This is no surprise. In 1981 tuition accounted for approximately one-fifth of revenue for public institutions, with the remainder coming from state and local government funding. Today that ratio is almost one to one, and in 25 states students and their families shoulder more than half of the burden. In seven states and counting, draconian budget cuts have left students and their families contributing twice as much state and local governments do.
Student debt has filled the gap between flat household earnings and surging college costs. Total outstanding student-loan obligations now exceed $1 trillion, and the sum continues to rise at an alarming rate. Student debt is the only form of consumer debt to have increased since the recession of 2008, now ranking second only to home mortgages.
What makes our society’s decision to bury so many graduates and their families in mountains of debt so remarkable is that U.S. history is replete with examples of the broad social benefits of bringing higher education within reach of increasing numbers of Americans. The original GI Bill opened the door to higher education for almost eight million veterans returning from World War II. By 1952 the federal government had spent $7 billion ($63 billion in 2015 dollars) on putting veterans through college, amounting to 1.3 percent of total federal expenditures during that period. More than 40 percent of those GI Bill beneficiaries indicated that without it they would not have attended college, and a 1988 Congressional subcommittee report concluded that for every dollar spent the federal government achieved a return of $6.90 in additional tax revenues thanks to the veterans’ increased incomes and productivity.
A key point here is that the bill also helped the majority of recipients who might have enrolled in college even without its help. This was not a mistake.
Part of the success of this legislation derived from the way that it furthered the vision of universally accessible higher education — a vision echoed at the municipal and state levels. For some years, hundreds of thousands of students received a free education from the City University of New York until tuition was imposed, in 1976. Many of them came from working-class backgrounds and were the first in their families to attend college. And until the 1970s, tuition at the University of California was free for state residents.
For all of its imperfections, the American system of higher education as we have come to know it — one that encourages students to develop their critical and creative capacities, pursue their intellectual interests, engage in original research, and prepare themselves for the job market — is the result of significant public investment.
While full membership in the polity does not and should not depend on having a college degree, the opportunity to extend one’s years of education through college should be the right of everyone with the will and the capacity. And the kind of high-school curriculum that prepares students for college, whether or not they choose to go, is the kind of education that produces discerning, engaged citizens who can hold our politicians to high standards.
It is understandably galling that the sons and daughters of the wealthiest 1 percent would be recipients of a universally available benefit. But history has shown us that those programs that have contributed most to the public good, such as Social Security and Medicare, work because they don’t make unnecessary distinctions among recipients. When politicians and officials head down the road of trying to determine, for the sake of "efficiency," who is most in need or most deserving of public support, they have already retreated from the ideas of the public good and social solidarity to the notion that government’s role is to assist only the "deficient," the "needy," the "truly deserving."
That is a mistake. The first step to stigmatizing the idea of the public good is to divide the citizenry into those who need help and those who don’t — a move that only masks certain forms of public assistance (tax breaks) while making other forms (Aid to Families With Dependent Children) markers of irresponsibility.
The reality is that we all need the kind of education — beginning with preschool and kindergarten — that the idea of college education demands, and that the only way to make this idea prevail is to make the possibility of going to college, without crippling debt, part of our social compact.
Kenneth W. Warren is a professor of English at the University of Chicago. Samir Sonti is a graduate student in the department of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara.