Education is the most important experience each of us has. Unfortunately, it has become an increasingly expensive experience at all levels. This is causing a continuing and intensive examination of the methods of finance. Who benefits? Who pays?
This prompts a lot of other questions. If an institution is publicly operated, is the tax dollar automatically expected to pay for it? That is a more and more prevalent attitude. If it is a publicly operated institution, does the public automatically receive public benefits any more than those it receives from privately operated institutions?
Can we continue to have open higher education--a system in which anyone who has the intellectual ability and desire to attend will be afforded the opportunity to do so? We are told that higher education is essential to our technological society and to the success of the individual in such a society. If society benefits, then society should provide the education. If the individual benefits, then the individual should provide for the education.
Now we get to the nitty-gritty. In the beginning of American public education, our constitutions and our laws were concerned about the basic skills: the reading, writing and arithmetic skills necessary to function in an agrarian and gradually industrializing world. It seemed appropriate that the taxpayers (primarily property owners) should pay for the education of all the children, because the tenants' and laborers' children needed those basic skills to perform the tasks necessary for employment. So, for the good of society, one generation of taxpayers paid for the basic education of the next generation.
As our country became more prosperous, more industrialized and more technological, the same model was extended to higher and higher levels of education. Today, many Americans are beginning to feel that there is a disproportionate public burden placed on one generation of taxpayers, a burden that benefits individual members of the succeeding generation far out of proportion to any public good that may be realized.
So why not let those who will benefit pay? How can we do that? We have had horrendous loan programs that did not work. Is there a simple way?
Yes. Establish a national fund and let anyone who has a Social Security number (this might be a way of forcing more universal participation in the system) use that number as a charge account against that national fund. Then when the individual works, the Social Security deduction would be double or triple the standard deduction until the educational bill is retired.
Perhaps that solution is too simple. It wouldn't take away anyone's freedom of choice. Anyone who wanted could still pay in advance. But it would provide open and total opportunities for higher education for anyone using this deferred payment system. It would provide for a more accountable higher education system because it would be shifting the burden of higher education costs to those who most directly benefit.
As tough as it may be for many conservative institutionalists to do so, a new approach is necessary--because the proverbial shoe has not grown with the foot.