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Why Free Higher Education Can’t Wait

If we want to end economic inequality and build a better future, we need higher education to be free.

Free higher education is key to solving not only the issue of student debt in this country, but also to respond to the demands of our changing economy and mounting challenges ahead. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout; Adapted: DaylandS, bredgur )

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 is a tax of half a percent on Wall Street transactions and 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 this has been the case for decades. Free education could help us solve some of today’s key economic issues; primarily, the fact that the bar is higher for most employment, with most jobs requiring a college degree. The economy is shifting, and student debt in the United States has reached a historic total of over $1.3 trillion. The average individual debt has now grown to $35k, while wages struggle to grow 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 to solving not only the issue of student debt in this country, but also to respond to the demands of our changing economy and mounting challenges ahead. (By “free” we mean four years of tuition-free public higher education, while expanding financial aid to cover other costs associated with attendance (food, housing, books, etc.).)

Most jobs now require a college degree but that has not always been the case. For most of our country’s history there has been a substantial amount of well-paid, low-skill work available to people with high school diplomas. Advances in technology have reduced the demand for farming labor, manufacturing labor and routine clerical work, with demand rising for professional and managerial roles that require specialized training. Outsourcing of low-skilled labor has also contributed to this shift. These changes have been taking place steadily over the past few decades, culminating in a more abrupt shift in recent years. In 1990, the manufacturing industry was the leading employer in 37 U.S. states. By 2013, that number dropped to just seven states, with health care and social services providing the most jobs in 34 states. Of over one million job openings in the U.S. in 215, more than 900,000 were in healthcare and education services.

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 (according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, “The number of students at U.S. colleges and universities fell nearly 2% between May 2014 and this month”), 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 borrow at higher rates than white students, with Latino students taking on the highest average debt. (Your authors each fall into one of these categories.) Higher levels of debt are also impacting students in the long term. Indebted students are less satisfied with their careers, are saving less for retirement, and are less likely to own homes.

Debt is even shaping the jobs students pursue after they graduate. Indebted students are more likely to pursue stable, high-salary positions than low-paid public interest work due to pressure to pay their loans. This finding should be concerning to all of us, considering the enormous collective challenges U.S. Americans face in the years ahead. If we are going to address the deep-rooted crises of racial injustice, climate change, and other sources of social instability, 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 individuals from each of these groups face pervasive economic barriers to pursuing a degree and graduating.

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 was free? We asked student organizers with the United States Student Association to consider how free higher education would impact their lives and their communities.

Yareli Castro, an undocumented student organizer at UC Irvine, noted that just 1% of undocumented students currently in college ends up 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 was 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, expressed 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 was 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 in reference to choosing their major. Some said they would opt for completely different majors, while others said they would add concentrations in the humanities to build a balanced worldview and skillset.

John Ashton, a student organizer at Des Moines Area Community College, said, “When education is expensive only the rich can obtain it. 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.”

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 is 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. Since President Obama announced his free community college plan earlier this year, several elected officials have introduced plans for tuition-free and debt-free college. 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 build enough power to secure the win and craft our own narratives about why free higher education matters.

At the last Democratic presidential debate, Bernie Sanders offered an accurate assessment of what it will take to make free higher education a reality. “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 in the lead up to the Million Student March. On November 12, students rose up to demand free higher education, forgiveness of all student debt, and a $15 minimum wage for all campus workers. The March marked the beginning of an exciting political moment, with over 100 actions planned and support from major progressive organizations and labor unions. But it is just the beginning. 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.