Students in California are pushing for a popular initiative on free public higher education. The draft would make four years of state university free for all full-time, in-state students who maintain at least a 2.7 grade-point average or do 70 hours of community service each year. It would pay for the lost tuition with a modest surtax on those making more than $250,000.
Making public college (or advanced training) free for all those who merit admission isn’t a radical idea. The United States led the world in making K-12 public education free. After World War II, the GI Bill provided college or advanced training for a generation of veterans. This not only avoided mass unemployment as the troops demobilized, it also provided the United States with the best educated citizenry in the world and was central to building the broad middle class that made America exceptional.
Making public colleges free would cost, it is estimated, somewhere around $30 billion a year. We could afford it. Mitt Romney’s proposal to eliminate the estate tax would cost about four times that sum and benefit only the heirs of the very wealthy. A financial transaction tax that would slow destabilizing speculation on Wall Street would raise many times that also.
Free public colleges might slow the rise of private college costs, as they would have to compete with the free offerings of public schools. More students would attend school or advanced training. The United States would gain the benefits of a better educated citizenry and workforce. Young people, not burdened by debt, could be more entrepreneurial and more public spirited.
Washington is too paralyzed by the elite fixation on austerity and too polarized by partisan divides to consider investments to create a better job market — or anything this bold. The Occupy Student Debt Campaign has it right: Reforms will come only from outside the Beltway.
Congress should act to ensure loan rates don’t double. But real reform will come only if students, parents and those who understand how student debt weighs down our recovery join together to demand it.