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Dollars & Sense

Why Free Higher Ed Can’t Wait

Students are rising up to demand free higher education.

(Photo: Neon Tommy/flickr/cc)

During the October 2015 Democratic presidential debate, Bernie Sanders offered an accurate assessment of what it will take to make free higher education a reality in the United States. “If we want free tuition at public colleges and universities,” Sanders said, “millions of young people are going to have to demand it.”

This is exactly what is starting to happen across the country. In recent months, we have witnessed an inspiring upsurge in mobilization around the demand, leading up to the Million Student March. On November 12, 2015, students rose up to demand free higher education, cancelation of all student debt, and a $15 minimum wage for all campus workers. The March marked the beginning of an exciting political moment that included over 100 actions carried out across the country with support from major progressive organizations and labor unions. The mobilizations coincided with a wave of protest in solidarity with students demanding racial justice at the University of Missouri. On many campuses, students combined their protests, producing stunning turnout in the hundreds and even thousands.

Why We Need It

Vermont senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has come out in support of free public higher education as part of his campaign platform. Sanders’ plan calls for the elimination of tuition at four-year public colleges and universities. This would be paid for through the implementation of a financial transaction tax, which at 0.5% on Wall Street transactions could raise close to $300 billion a year.

Sanders is not alone. For years, students and advocates have been pushing for free higher education, citing many other countries where it has been free for decades. Free education could help us solve some of today’s key economic problems. The bar is getting higher for well-paid jobs, with most requiring a college degree, while tuition and fees at universities are rising at staggering rates. Student debt in the United States has reached a record total of over $1.3 trillion. The average individual debt has now grown to $35,000, while wages barely keep up with inflation. The United States is clearly in need of a deep restructuring in terms of how workers are prepared to enter the labor market.

Free—totally free—higher education is key not only to solving the problem of student debt in this country, but also to responding to the demands of our changing economy and the mounting challenges ahead. By “free” we mean four years of tuition-free public higher education, and at the same time expanding financial aid to cover other costs associated with attendance (food, housing, books, etc.).

Senator Sanders summarized the predicament succinctly during the first Democratic debate: “A college degree today ... is the equivalent of what a high-school degree was 50 years ago. And what we said 50 years ago and a hundred years ago is that every kid in this country should be able to get a high-school education regardless of the income of their family. I think we have to say that is true for everybody going to college.”

Education, Jobs, and Debt

Until recent years, the main story told by mainstream economists to explain unequal job prospects and growing income inequality was one of “skill-biased technological change.” Technological change had reduced the demand for farming labor, manufacturing labor, and routine clerical work, with demand rising for professional and managerial roles that required specialized training. Outsourcing of low-skilled labor, they added, also contributed to this shift.

The trends in manufacturing employment seem to confirm this explanation. In 1990, the manufacturing sector was the leading employer in 37 U.S. states. By 2013, that number dropped to just seven, with health care and social services providing the most jobs in 34 states. Of over 3.85 million job openings in the U.S. in June 2015, only about 300,000 were in manufacturing. Nearly 1 million were in healthcare and education services—with many of those jobs undoubtedly requiring at least a bachelor’s degree, and some requiring more advanced degrees.

But that’s not the whole story. Demand for “low-skilled” workers has not vanished. “Low-skilled” jobs in retail trade, hospitality, and other sectors have represented a growing share of total employment in recent decades, and accounted for about 1.25 million job openings in June 2015. Despite growth in these sectors, wages are stagnant for middle-income workers and declining for low-wage workers. Economists like former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, once an advocate of the skill-biased technological change theory (and a campaigner for education and job training as the main cures for economic inequality), have now abandoned the theory—emphasizing instead inequality in market and political power as the key sources of economic inequality.

Economic disparities play a huge role in determining who has access to a college education, and therefore who can compete in our changing economy. Low-income students and students of color are less likely to be able to afford the rising costs of higher education, and are getting shut out of opportunities. Enrollment rates are dropping (down by nearly 2% for the fall 2015 semester, compared to a year earlier), drop-out rates are increasing, and it is taking students longer and longer to complete their degrees due to financial obstacles.

Students who do manage to attend college increasingly rely on loans to finance their education, with students of color taking on a disproportionate debt burden. At public institutions, 63% of white students borrowed to pay for their education compared to 81% of black students. At private institutions, black and Latino students—each of your authors falls into one of these categories—borrow at higher rates than white students, with Latino students taking on the highest average debt. Higher levels of debt are also impacting students in the long term. Those saddled with substantial educational debt are less satisfied with their careers, are saving less for retirement, and are less likely to own homes.

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Debt is even shaping the jobs students pursue after they graduate. Students deeper in debt are more likely to pursue stable, high-salary positions than lower-paid public interest work, compared to their less- indebted counterparts. This finding should be concerning to all of us, considering the enormous collective challenges we face in the years ahead. If we are going to address the deep-rooted causes of racial injustice, climate change, and other social problems, we need to create incentives for students to pursue meaningful work they are passionate about, instead of making it harder and harder for them to do so.

It is particularly concerning that our debt-based system of higher education is depriving people most affected by the flaws in our current political and economic systems of opportunities to participate in reshaping them. People of color, working-class people, survivors of sexual violence, undocumented people, women, and LGBTQIA people deserve to take the lead in crafting solutions to issues that affect their communities. Higher education plays a crucial role in providing access to tools and resources to make this possible, yet people from each of these groups face pervasive barriers to pursuing a degree, graduating, and securing gainful employment. Not all deep-seated social inequalities are perfectly reflected in figures like graduation rates. Women accounted for over 57% of bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2009-2010, as well as the majority of master’s and doctoral degrees. Still, women face significant barriers to entering some fields, including STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) known for high-paid professional jobs. Universities can and should play a role in advancing opportunities for disenfranchised groups.

Students Speak Out

Art Motta, a student at UC Santa Cruz who studies politics and Latin American & Latino studies, acknowledges that his education has helped him gain the capacity to “analyze institutionalized structures [and] power dynamics,” skills critical to help him pursue his passion for advocacy and public service. “[My education] also supplies me with a wealth of background knowledge for real situations that I am bound to encounter as a student of color in a system that was not made for me.”

Art represents one of many non-traditional students who had to delay pursuing a college education due to financial barriers. “I had to put my education on hold because the costs became unbearable .... I had to focus on providing for my family.” Art was ultimately able to resume his studies but he is very conscious of the fact that these opportunities are not available to most of the people he grew up with. “In my community, graduating from high school was considered a major feat in itself,” Art said. Pursuing a four-year degree remains further out of reach “because of the high costs associated with college.” The layers upon layers of ways in which our debt-based system of higher education drives inequality are shocking and immoral. But what would things look like if higher education were free? We asked student organizers with the United States Student Association (USSA) to consider what impact free higher education would have on their lives and their communities.

Yareli Castro, a student organizer at UC Irvine who is herself undocumented, noted economic barriers that prevent undocumented students from gaining access to higher education and graduating. “One of the main reasons why my community does not go to college—or, if they do, they drop out—is [because of] financial circumstances. In many states, undocumented students do not get financial aid, loans, or any type of financial support and the burden is very heavy. Undocumented students are very often not allowed to work in this country, so this financial pressure continues mounting. Free higher education would allow my community ... to not have to worry about working many jobs [or] taking out loans, and solely work on their studies.”

Filipe de Carvalho, a student organizer at UMass Amherst, reflected on the role free higher education could play in giving students opportunities they can believe in. If higher education were free, “a much larger percentage of my high school ... would see a four-year university as a real option. I believe many of my peers would have cared more about their academics in high school had they believed that they could actually go to college.”

Jordan Howzell, a student organizer at UC Santa Cruz, said that free higher education would allow her to “pursue a career rooted in my passions instead of its ability to cover my student loans.” If higher education were free, she would study “music and its psychiatric and rehabilitative qualities, and how music is situated in social movements and social justice issues.” Several of the students interviewed expressed similar sentiments about how they would choose their majors. Some said they would opt for completely different majors, while others said they would add course work in the humanities to build a balanced worldview and skillset.

John Ashton is a student organizer at Des Moines Area Community College. “When education is expensive, only the rich can obtain it,” he says. “When education is free, the disenfranchised can become the best and brightest, and after all is said and done, that is what America is all about. ... Until the cost of higher education is eliminated, [our] higher education system [will never] achieve its full potential, nor will it train enough of the next generation of workers to meet the needs of the country.”

The Road Ahead

If we want to end economic inequality and build a better future, we need higher education to be free. Free higher education will not solve all of our problems, but it would be a big step in the right direction. If young people have access to debt-free, high-quality education, it will open up more opportunities for them to use their skills and strengths to build satisfying careers and serve their communities, instead of cramming themselves into thankless and soulless positions just to make ends meet.

This will inevitably take time. Students have been pushing for free higher education for years, and it has only now become a part of the mainstream lexicon. There have been some precedents in U.S. history, including the CUNY system in New York, which offered tuition-free higher education up until the 1970s. In recent years, several elected officials have introduced plans for tuition-free and debt-free college. New York State Assembly member James Skoufis introduced a 2014 bill offering free undergraduate tuition for all students who fulfill community service and residency requirements after graduation. In Oregon last year, legislators signed off on a bill pushing tuition at community colleges down to just $50. In early 2015, President Obama announced a plan for free community college. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have introduced proposals for debt-free and tuition-free higher education, respectively.

It is important that we closely examine these proposals as they come out, and fight to make sure they include all groups affected by the issue. It is even more important that we craft our own narratives about why free higher education matters, and build enough power to secure the win. Young people fighting for progressive change have learned important lessons about what it takes to win over the past few years. There is a widespread understanding that we need to consistently mobilize a large base of young people and win overwhelming public support to make free higher education a reality.

Biola Jeje

Biola Jeje is a cofounder of New York Students Rising, a statewide student network at state and city colleges, and now works as a full time digital media organizer in the labor movement.

Belinda Rodriguez

Belinda Rodriguez  is a climate justice activist and organizer. She sits on the board of the Energy Action Coalition and most recently served as Training Director at United States Student Association.

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