Let’s make higher ed. free for all americans

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Better than Star Wars or welfare for millionaires…

Whenever you hear that George W. Bush, Tom Daschle, or any of the other top politicos in Washington has announced “a BOLD plan”—on education, health care, or whatever—one thing you can be sure of is that there’s really nothing bold about it at all. The plan will have been vetted by lobbyists, crafted so as not to alarm big-money contributors, compromised from the start to attract quasi-bipartisan support, and generally dulled on all edges by the KSQ—the Keepers of the Status Quo. If it truly was a bold plan, they wouldn’t have to shout it at us, would they? We’d be able to see the boldness for ourselves . . . and we’d also hear the horrified shrieks of the KSQ.

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This is why the great majority of people think today’s national politics is such a cruel joke—it offers no bold ideas to rally the people and advance the national interest. People are yearning for a politics that, as we say in Texas, has hair on it. A politics that sweats, growls, brawls . . . that’s worth the prize, that produces results for ordinary folks and the common good of our society.

What if we pushed a political debate that this workaday majority actually might give a damn or get excited about? We’ve had such debates in the past, from women’s suffrage to labor laws, from Social Security to Medicare—big ideas that engaged people and benefited them.

Here’s an example of a give-a-damn issue that was fought and won nearly sixty years ago: the GI Bill of Rights.

At its core, this was a national free-education bill. It allowed the men coming back from World War II to go to the school of their choice—from trade school to graduate school—for up to four years if they met the academic qualifications. They received public grants of up to $500 a year, which generally covered their tuition, books, fees, and other costs, plus they could get a living stipend of up to $50 a month.

Thus came the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (the official name of what became known as the GI Bill). Better to channel this mass of energy and ambition into schools and training programs. However, it was not easy to pass.

Many among the KSQ—especially the Congressional right wing, the laissez-fairers, and some of the academic establishment—opposed it on the grounds that: 1) it would encourage sloth among the veterans; 2) the vets would lower the academic standards of our fine colleges and universities; and 3) it would cost too much.
But with the enthusiastic backing of returning veterans and their families, with leadership from such politically diverse forces as progressive labor unions and the American Legion, and with the support of some business and political leaders who simply didn’t know what else to do, it passed.

More importantly, the GI Bill worked, and it’s now recognized as one of the most useful acts Congress ever passed. About 7.8 million veterans were trained during the 12-year life of this education program, including approximately 2.2 million who went to college; 3.5 million who went to trade, technical, or other schools; 1.4 million who got on-the-job training; and 700,000 who got farm training.

The total cost for the program was $14.5 billion—$1,860 per vet. There was a huge payoff for our nation from this investment—a 1988 Congressional study of one group educated under the GI Bill found that every dollar invested produced a $7 increase in our nation’s output.

Of course, as with all good educational programs, the national training efforts produced more opportunities and income for the GIs and their families. But, as happens after a good, soaking two-inch spring rain, many flowers bloomed across our country as a result of this showering of public funds on America’s grassroots.

Adolph Reed Jr., a fine thinker, writer, political strategist, and professor at the New School University, has recently itemized some of the additional and indirect gains from the GI Bill:

• The cultural and civic horizons of the GIs who participated were greatly broadened and their personal growth and enrichment enhanced.

• The educational, employment, and cultural opportunities for the children of the GIs were also improved.

• The growth that the bill stimulated in higher-educational enrollment fueled a broad expansion of colleges, trade schools, and other institutions, with many new institutions and campuses reaching for the first time into inner-city and rural communities, putting advanced education within physical and economic reach of people who otherwise might not have had the opportunity, or even considered the possibility of more schooling.

• The boom in enrollment also meant a boom in construction jobs, and new educational facilities created other jobs—from teachers to janitors, administrators to cafeteria workers.

• The college and university experience was dramatically democratized, broadened, and deepened as students from working-class and farm backgrounds were afforded the chance to go in large numbers to what had been havens for the elite.

Trust the Tried and True

Here’s a big idea for today’s political consideration: Let’s do that again. Let’s revisit the concept of the GI Bill, but expand it to every American. Anyone who can meet the academic qualifications should have their tuition, fees, and other educational expenses covered, plus a reasonable living stipend, for education and training beyond high school. Yes, free education for all.

The KSQ constantly scolds us about the importance of education, repeatedly pointing out that the key to personal advancement and to the advancement of our country in today’s global “knowledge economy” is advanced education. High school no longer cuts it, we’re told—you must get higher skills and knowledge for the 21st century.

So let’s take them up on it! We now provide universal, free access to public schools, from first through 12th grades, because we know from experience that this level of education produces more capable citizens and adds geometrically to our national prosperity and well-being. As the bumper sticker puts it: If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.

In Constitutional terms, America must be educated as broadly as possible “In order to form a more perfect union, establish justice . . . [and] promote the general welfare.” While the high-school diploma once was enough to do that, providing a ticket out of unskilled drudge work, that diploma now needs an upgrade if people are to escape a life of low wages, and if our country’s national interest is to be best served.

Today, a basic bachelor’s degree is an all-around money maker, typically providing 75% more earning power than a high-school diploma and often adding more than a million bucks in additional income over a lifetime of work.

It’s a big boost for our economy, too—the Educational Testing Service has found that, while it costs a state about $24,000 to put a student through a four-year public college, the return to the state’s economy is about $2 million during the student’s work life, and the return to the state treasury is some $375,000 in taxes the higher-earning student pays.

Yet, increasingly, not only are poor folks priced out of this opportunity, but so is the middle class. A report from the Lumina Foundation for Education tells us that the cost of attending four-year public colleges is now unmanageable for the typical family in practically every state, and tuition costs are spiraling upward at the same time that both federal and state educational grant monies are being slashed.

College has become a sinkhole of debt for those who can borrow to go (U.S. PIRG finds that two-thirds of college students now graduate with loan debts averaging $17,000), and those with no capacity to borrow are simply locked out.

It is time to unlock those doors so anyone who wants higher education and is capable of making the grade is afforded free access, thus fueling a new “education boom” that will produce more construction, jobs, wealth, and tax revenues—while elevating America to number one in the world in education.

Adding a populist touch

As with the GI Bill, our modern-day initiative should not be limited to the pursuit of university degrees. “Higher” education means just that—higher than high school. One of the great things about America is that we are a diverse people with equally diverse career paths.

Advanced educational opportunities ought to be as populist as possible, letting people themselves chose what works for them. Whether the end result is a lab coat or a chef’s toque, whether you learn website design in a community college or auto design in a technical institute, whether you study nursing or woodworking, whether you’re granted a BA in accounting or earn certification as a master organic farmer—our society benefits, for you have more knowledge than before and more potential to contribute to the common good.

In addition, the timing of an individual’s schooling also should be open-ended, allowing people to determine their own pace. While the old norm was four years of college immediately after high school, plenty of 18-year-olds don’t have a clue about what pursuit is best for them, and there’s no reason they should have to go to college right off.

Also, as any good teacher knows, there are hordes of late bloomers—kids who are smart but do poorly in school. Maybe they’re bored, aren’t good at taking tests, have problems at home, are loaded with attitude, etc. Their wheels don’t quite fit the track, and some even drop out of high school . . . but America should not give up on their higher-education potential. Give them time to bloom. The go-to-school-for-free card can be held until they’re ready, whether that’s at 18 or 36.

Free higher education also is a natural fit for our new global order, a fast-spinning world in which employees can forget about such old-fashioned niceties as corporate loyalty and job security, no matter how much of yourself you’ve dedicated to the company. Washington and Wall Street tell us that we must expect to get dumped frequently and scramble for new work, usually requiring higher skills.

Okay, so in a wealthy nation like ours, which has become the world model for this new chaotic economy, let’s lead the way in providing secure footing for our people by making sure that an infrastructure of free education and training is always in place. If this is the way the new world is going to be, let’s adjust for that world. To do less would be a damnable failure of leadership.

Fundamentally, education is opportunity, which is what America is all about. So why limit that opportunity to a particular time of life?

I know someone who has all the talent to be a fine chef, and my guess is that he yearns to be one. But when he came out of high school years ago, he didn’t know this about himself, nor was chefdom a career opportunity that high-school counselors suggested to students back then. He’s done very well for himself—he’s a top-notch auto mechanic, has a great family, and whips up fabulous meals at home—but if he had the chance to get culinary training, I think he’d leap at it.

We spend way too much time for it not to be working at a job we love. Like my friend the would-be chef, we all know some mid-level manager who really wants to teach math, or a house painter who’d like to learn how to be a graphic designer, or a health technician who’d like to become a wine maker, or an oil-rig worker who’d love to be a marine biologist. Just because you got on a job track at an early age doesn’t mean that’s the best place for you, and you shouldn’t be stuck there. But the expense of getting the skills and accreditation to switch keeps people stuck.

Our society would be enriched and our nation well served by a wide-open system of ongoing educational opportunity as we move through life. In 21st-century America, education ought not be merely a means of economic advancement, but also a pathway for “the pursuit of happiness”—our third inalienable right, and the one that defines America’s grand democratic possibilities.

Enhancing this possibility with free higher education for all is a goal that is worthy of us, and one that should be put at the center of our nation’s public policy debate.

The bottom line

The naysayers will shriek: “Where are you going to get the money for such a massive public investment?” Get it from where it went. The total cost of the GI Bill was about $80 billion in today’s money. Washington has already frittered away $95 billion on the Star Wars boondoggle and plans to spend hundreds of billions more. On national-security grounds alone, education for all beats the bejeezus out of this silly system.

Or let’s retrieve Bush’s tax giveaway to millionaires. With the support of compliant Democrats, he intends to make this multitrillion-dollar windfall permanent. Instead, if we eliminated this giveaway for just the richest 1% of Americans (who make on average $1.1 million per year), leaving it in place for everyone else, we’d have $47 billion per year to invest in every American’s education.

Why be stingy with something so basic and so productive as educational opportunity? Bush and too many Democrats balk at the very idea of investing in the future of ordinary people, lamely saying that we can’t have everything, that money is scarce and we have to make choices.

Okay, I choose to be stingy about doling out more military contracts to Halliburton, giving a $257 million tax rebate to Enron, and generally shoveling our hard-earned tax dollars into corporate coffers.

It’s a matter of what We the People want to do. As we learned after September 11, the money can be found to do whatever needs to be done—and even for what doesn’t need to be done.

But the bottom line on higher education for all is more than economic, for it represents a truly populist vision that embraces the democratic aspirations of America’s workaday majority. It empowers people directly, letting them decide when, where, and what advanced education they’ll get. It abandons the elitist notion that higher education is reserved for the top few, instead respecting the dignity of all kinds of educational pursuits.

As a postscript, there’s an obvious need to put more resources into the quality schooling of our children, working to make our K-12 public education system the best in the world—starting with a robust Head Start program.

That’s a whole other story for another Lowdown, but a total commitment to both broad and excellent educational opportunity is the best public investment that a democracy can make. Nothing is more important to our nation’s ideals of fairness and justice. As Horace Mann wrote in 1848, public education is “the balance wheel of society.” And our society could use a lot more balance right now.

I’m making moves!

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