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It's Time to Push for Free College

by Max Page and Dan Clawson

Just about everyone agrees that college should be more affordable. A century ago high school was becoming a necessity, not a luxury; today the same is happening to college. If college is essential for building a career and being a full participant in our democracy as high school once was, shouldn't it be free, paid for by public dollars, and treated as a right of all members of our country?

We have made K-12 education free because it is good for the individual and for society. The same is true for higher education. As several recent studies have underscored, a college degree is a pathway to a more stable life, financially and otherwise, even for students who struggled in high school. Other studies show that there is no better short-term or long-term investment for the rest of society than higher education. For example, one study shows that new spending on public colleges, which would be sparked by an influx of more students, produces more economic activity than a similar-sized tax cut, or similar spending on roads and bridges. And, over their lives, college graduates smoke less, commit fewer crimes, draw less on social welfare programs, and generate more taxes.

These arguments, long made by activists on the left, have finally made their way into the mainstream. (Of course, they've been in the mainstream for decades in most advanced countries, where higher education is free, including Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, Mexico, and Brazil). President Obama's proposal for free community college, builds off the program launching in Tennessee this year. But he also was inspired by other state proposals past and present, like the 20-year-old state-funded HOPE scholarship program in Georgia, the largest merit-based scholarship program in the U.S., and free-college proposals in Oregon, Mississippi, Chicago, Philadelphia, and our own state of Massachusetts, where universal public education was pioneered by Horace Mann.

These proposals are born out of recognition that our students are struggling. Many can't go to college because they can't afford it or won't burden their families with the debt. Most who graduate do so with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, shackling them to creditors for decades and limiting their career options. We should no longer delay our students' escape from the decades-long spiral of state cuts, higher tuition, and dwindling financial aid. Shouldn't we, as educators and union members of the largest teachers' union in the nation, stand with our students and fight to give them the opportunities they deserve?

Opponents say: now is not the time. Although the movement for free higher education has built enough momentum that a cautious centrist like President Obama now supports free community college, they say that until our colleges other problems are solved, we should cross our arms and block the schoolhouse door. Free higher education is "a generation too late," wrote the leader of the Massachusetts Community College Council recently. This resistance reminds us of what the Birmingham ministers said to Martin Luther King, Jr.: Be patient. Acting now would be "unwise and untimely." But we say it's never too early or too late to fight for one's principles.

We can make this happen but only if we, faculty, staff, and K-12 teachers, too, stand together with students and parents and demand that public higher education is a right for everyone, and not a privilege for the few. Then, together, we can say to the people in power: Free is not enough. It has to be free quality education. That means we need more tenure-system faculty and full-time staff, better pay, benefits, and job security for adjunct faculty, and more support services. We know the power of collective action because we have seen it here in Massachusetts where a unified group of students, faculty and staff, brought together by PHENOM (the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts), won a $100 million boost in state funding, allowing campuses to hire more faculty and staff while freezing tuition and fees.

Those who oppose free public higher education roar that it would be a hardship on campuses, that it would mean more students and less money, that hundreds of faculty and staff would be fired. This is false. In Tennessee, which recently instituted free community college, they are busy hiring more faculty to teach the classes to all the new students thrilled about the opportunity to get a higher education. Georgia's HOPE scholarships led to the dramatic expansion of small, commuter schools into major institutions, such as Georgia State University (where one of us taught). Obviously, this same coalition of students, faculty, and staff will have to be vigilant in our demands that new faculty and staff are mainly tenure-system, and that adjunct faculty who are hired are compensated fairly and have some measure of job security.

Here's a simple historical fact: in this country, it is universal programs that last and are protected, while discretionary programs like public higher education are routinely cut. Why do Social Security and Medicare survive while welfare is gutted? Why does universal K-12 education get much more funding, in state after state, while public higher education has seen massive cuts over the past generation? Those who denounce free higher education should recognize that they have gotten nowhere by repeating, over and over, that we need more resources.

A growing list of unions and activist groups are embracing free higher education as a cause. NEA needs to strengthen its stand by firmly endorsing a resolution like that of AFT, which declared a decade ago their belief in "the right of all Americans to have access to a fully funded free public higher education." Members should get their locals to endorse the idea of free public higher education, and get their campus Faculty Senates to do so as well. And they should consider joining up with other national and state-based groups, such as Generation Progress, Higher Ed, Not Debt, the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, and Rolling Jubilee.

Free higher education, and the public colleges and universities our nation deserves, is in our sights.

Max Page and Dan Clawson are professors of architecture and sociology, respectively, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Each previously served as president of the Massachusetts Society of Professors, the 1,400-member union of faculty and librarians, which is a chapter of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and are active in the statewide union. They are co-authors of The Future of Higher Education (Routledge.)


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