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Speaking Out

Free Public Higher Education

In an address to Congress earlier this year, President Obama offered this challenge: “I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training…. By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”

It is a noble goal. But it is not possible to achieve unless the nation fundamentally changes how we think about higher education. Now is the time to make an investment that would stimulate the economy, relieve family debt, and build a foundation for a robust future. We’re talking, of course, about free public higher education.

These days, a college education is necessary for success. Just listen to Margaret Spellings, the George Bush Administration Secretary of Education: "What a high school diploma was in the ‘50s is akin, more and more, to at least two years of postsecondary education today.” And President Obama: “Every American will need to get more than a high school diploma.” The sentiment is bipartisan, and so has been the failure.

The more important higher education has become to a person’s chances of success and to our society’s chances to compete globally, the harder we have made it for students and their families to afford a college education. Thirty years ago, state and local governments put in $3.99 for every dollar that students and parents paid; today states put in $1.76 for every dollar, less than half what they contributed a generation ago. The result: Millions of students have left college with massive debt that has limited their life chances. Millions more are simply unable to afford higher education. This isn’t just a tragedy for the individual but for society.

Many people agree that higher education should be free, but respond: "How could we afford it?” In 2006-07 the total amount of tuition and fees paid by all students in public higher education was $39.36 billion dollars. That’s not chicken feed, but when our nation cares about something—Iraq, tax cuts, health care, bankers—we find the money.

As a 21st century response to the GI Bill, which educated so many veterans and helped create the best public university system in the world, we need a GA (Greater America) Bill that would guarantee every high school graduate at least two years of free college. Nothing could better answer President Obama’s goals.


Max Page and Dan Clawson are professors (architecture and sociology, respectively) at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and both are former presidents of the Mass Society of Professors (MTA/NEA), the1400-member faculty and librarian union at UMass-Amherst.

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Published In

June, 2009


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