Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Free For All

Why aren’t state colleges and universities free? The question popped into my head while watching stuffy Prince Charles and his horsy wife, Camilla, get pummeled on a London street by students protesting the tripling of tuition fees. A Huffington Post piece stated that the vintage 1977 Rolls-Royce Phantom VI containing the couple was also damaged.

But who cares about the car or the royal couple. I am with the students. How are people supposed to get an education if tuition keeps skyrocketing? The average amount of student loan debt an undergraduate accrues these days is approximately $23,186. A graduate degree requires another $25,000 on average, and a doctorate involves $52,000. These are averages; costs can be a lot higher for some students, especially those who do not have parental support or who attend a private university. I do not expect private universities and colleges to be free. If a student selects that option, then he must pay the full freight. However, public universities like the California State system or the University of California schools should be free.

Should a government that cannot decide whether or not to allow more than twenty-six weeks of unemployment when one of every ten people is out of work also pony up for tuition? Yes, and I know that someone must pay the price. Disclaimer: I am no economist or financial wizard. In fact, let me admit up front that my wife keeps the books for the household and balances the checkbook. I am given cash as needed. This has led many of my male friends to question my manhood, but I am unfazed. I hate math and I do not want to think about how little money I have. In the area of government spending, however, I am not naïve. Tax payers must pay for services, and that means we would all face higher taxes to pay for a free university system. I’ll leave how to pay for it to the bean counters. I want to examine the practical benefits of free school for everyone.

In researching the subject, people think that free education for everyone means that everyone would have a college degree—at least a bachelors, and probably a masters or doctorate. Therefore, those degrees would be worth less in the marketplace. Just because we allow everyone to get a degree does not mean they will. Classes should be rigorous and demanding, and if a student does not measure up with good grades, she is shown the door. In fact, I have seen a lot of grade inflation in my time as a teacher. If anything, we need to move the system back to a C being an average mark. Most graduate programs require a B or A average to advance to a degree. Although the cost is free, one must work and achieve to continue in the program. This kind of qualitative grading should be instituted at every level of public education. If a student has grades below a C in high school, his educational career ends there. Getting an advanced degree in a public college or university means a time commitment as well as dedication to doing well. If a student does not meet the minimum grade point average coming in, or falls below the acceptable threshold during her stay in school, she will be forced out. However, a student should not be barred from seeking an education because she cannot afford the cost, or does not want to accumulate crushing student loan debt before even landing her first job.

So much has been made recently about our failing schools. Experts say American students are weak in science and math, thereby crippling American innovation and manufacturing. President Barack Obama has committed his administration to improving America’s standing in math and science education. I would add to the argument that we need improvement in all subjects. Learning to think critically and analytically requires solid coursework in English, philosophy, history, and the other humanities. In an age when industrial manufacturing is increasingly computerized and mechanized, we need to create thinkers, people with the brain power to be innovators and creators. We do not need the worker to stand on the assembly line and put doors on a hundred automobiles a day. Machines do that. We need people who can solve problems, create concepts, and develop technology.

Allowing for a free education democratizes the university. People with the ability to think and be creative will have no obstacles in their paths to achieve. In turn, we increase the educational level and proficiency of the next generation of American innovators. Those who are older have the opportunity to return to school for retraining in an emerging technology, like green industries. Removing the financial obligations of an education leaves one focus: achievement. Students who achieve have no roadblocks to complete degrees and certifications.

To the charges that without fees and tuition, everyone will get a college degree, I say, what is wrong with that? Having a better educated populace is a bad thing? It might not be what politicians want because educated people cannot be fooled or duped as easily. They will ask questions and demand accountability.

To revamp the entire system, we need to blow the doors off the school and make high achievement the only criteria for continuing education. President Obama should nationalize the public universities, and dump money into the system to allow every qualified American to enroll, and increase the quality of teaching and learning. Where will money come from to do this? Well, we will need to tax people, starting with the wealthiest two to three percent that every politician seems so concerned about protecting. But we will have to go further and have all people foot the bill.

There is so much waste. To start, bring our men and women in uniform home from these egregious wars based on lies and subterfuge. Why are we risking lives and spending billions propping up corrupt and incompetent governments in other countries? We hand suitcases of cash to Hamid Karzai while our own people struggle to pay for an education? Or worse, we offer grants, loans, TARP money, and bailouts to banks so that they can continue to pay their multi-million dollar bonuses to CEOs. Wrong, wrong, criminally wrong!

The age of assembly lines and factory work, the suburban tract home, the car in every garage, that American dream is over. If we are to regain our strength, all paths lead to the intellect. We must endeavor to be the smartest, most ethical people on earth. If it takes roughing up a prince in London or placing a greater tax burden on Wall Street fat cats in lower Manhattan as well as the rest of us, so be it. We’re talking about the future. We have had street protests over tuition hikes here in America; maybe it is time for American students to follow the lead of their British counterparts and return to the streets again. The Brits chanted “Off with their heads!” at bonny Prince Charles. That might be a bit over-the-top, but we need a take-no-prisoners, spare-no-vintage-automobiles attitude. We want to learn, and we do not want to sell ourselves into indentured servitude to get an education. That is a reasonable demand, I think.

Photo courtesy of Associated Press and Huffington Post.


  1. Hi Paul,

    I like your thinking on this. No doubt there would be problems along the way and it might not solve the problem with quality of education but there is relatively little downside in trying. It might cost a bit of money but other than the financial end of things there is not much of a downside. The worst that could happen is that people will on average be more educated. And that is not a bad thing.

    If going further in education is more related to abilities than financial status, this might give people incentive to try harder and get more out the education they get.

    One problem I see is in the gateway that determines who goes further. I lived in Georgia for my working life (I retired to Pennsylvania almost 3 years ago)and Georgia used the money from the state lottery to give everyone in the state with a B average a scholarship that covered full tuition at state colleges and partial scholarships to private schools. There were 2 problems. One is that a B at one school could indicate a reasonably good student, a B at a second school might go to a student who needs remedial work before taking college level courses. So the problem seems to be a very uneven quality of high schools. Second, over the few years I lived in GA with this system, there was reported to be considerable grade inflation so the B standard became even less meaningful.

    A good idea and there are problems but probably nothing insurmountable. Maybe if enough people give this idea serious thought, we can find some solutions.

  2. Imagine that, Jack. A more educated populace. What would we do with ourselves?

    As for your point about grade inflation, that is something that must be addressed at all levels of education. In our need to feel good about ourselves, we have gone overboard with the feel good A grades we hand out. A C is an average grade. A grades are for the truly superior. We need to return to that standard and forget about Junior's fragile sense of self esteem. Old school means teachers tell it like it is. We who were educated under that system survived, even flourished. It is not a bad thing to learn that there are other people better than you in a subject, or that you are only average.

    Thanks for the comment.


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