Monday, August 5, 2013

A Free and Public Education

College costs have, undoubtedly, become the albatross around the necks of American parents and students. With education debt passing $1 trillion, it's clear education is becoming the next economic bubble. And, there seems to be little doubt that higher education will soon be priced out of reach for most Americans - or it will be accessed for a price that will never return the value of the investment. Much has been written about the rising costs and the question of whether higher education is worth the cost. Yet, those arguments are countered with claims that nearly every student needs post-secondary education to have any chance at a financially successful and secure life.  Robert Samuels - president of the University Council for the American Federation of Teachers - challenges, criticizes, and exposes the problems with the cost of higher education in his book Why Public Education Should be Free. Samuels makes a compelling argument for fully-funded higher education by looking to success stories like Finland:

According to Pasi Sahlberg's Finnish Lessons, there were five major components to Finland's success: (1) all education became public and free; (2) teachers became well compensated and highly trained; (3) education became interactive and experienced-based; (4) students at an early age received individual attention; and (5) in high school, students were able to choose a vocational track or an academic track. It is my contention that we can apply to higher education in America many of the same educational reforms that were used in elementary and secondary education in Finland.

Of course, funding higher education for all students would seem to be an insurmountable cost. That is until you look at the actual figures. And then the idea becomes more intriguing.

If we multiply the number of students in each segment of public higher education by the average total cost, we discover that the cost of making all public universities free would have been $97-billion in 2009-10, with an annual cost of $33-billion for all community colleges—or a total of $130-billion.
While $130-billion seems like a large figure, we need to remember that in 2010, the federal government spent more than $30-billion on Pell Grants and $104-billion on student loans, and the states spent at least $10-billion on financial aid for universities and colleges and an additional $76-billion for direct support of higher education. Furthermore, looking at various state and federal tax breaks and deductions for tuition, it might be possible to make all public higher education free by just using current resources in a more effective manner.

The value of a college degree and the feasibility/necessity of anyone investing in it, including the federal government, is still up for debate.  On an individual basis, each consumer has to ask himself Are College Degrees Worth the Money?

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