Higher education ought to be a right, available to every student who makes the grade, without regard to that student's ability to pay. But it's increasingly a privilege for the rich—and an impossible burden for the poor.
There is a spiraling crisis of affordability in higher education today. As almost every state reels from the effects of tax cuts, legislatures slash funding for higher education. Colleges respond with hefty tuition increases, reduced financial assistance and new fees. According to the College Board, over the last decade, average tuition and fees at public four-year colleges increased 40 percent and private four-year tuition increased 33 percent.
Community colleges, the gateway to advanced studies for many, also increased charges. Tuition and fees rose in all but two states, with 10 states mandating increases of more than 10 percent, according to the National Center on Public Policy and Higher Education. Some community college officials in California estimate an enrollment decline of about 200,000 students due to tuition fee increases.
These measures put an extra burden on the average family, whose net worth has declined over the last two years for the first time in half a century. Budget cuts and tuition increases ripple throughout the academic community. They result in more hiring freezes and early retirements among full-time faculty. Replacing them are poorly paid and overworked contingent instructors. Meanwhile, students have fewer courses to choose from, and their classes are overcrowded.
Many universities are retreating from their commitments to provide low-cost education for state residents, as they shift the balance of admissions more toward out-of-state applicants who pay substantially higher tuition. State schools have traditionally been the ladders to good jobs for students from working and middle-class families. But that ladder is no longer standing. In fact, the Congressional Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance reports that by the end of this decade, as many as 4.4 million college-qualified high-school graduates will be unable to enroll in a four-year college, and 2 million will not go to college at all because they can't afford it.
Financial aid is not picking up the slack. Three decades ago, Pell Grants helped guarantee access to public colleges for primarily low and moderate-income students. Millions of Americans earned college degrees as a result. In 1975, the maximum Pell grant covered 84 percent of costs at a four-year public college. Now, the grant covers only 42 percent of costs at four-year public colleges and only 16 percent of costs at four-year private colleges.
As a result of an increasing reliance on loans, the majority of students (64 percent) graduate with an average debt of almost $17,000. This is up significantly from $8,200 in 1989. Skyrocketing tuition and reliance on interest-carrying loans force some students to forgo college altogether, while others drop out or delay graduation because they sacrifice the time for their studies in order to work. Fifty-three percent of low-income freshmen who work more than 35 hours per week drop out and do not receive a degree.
Contrast this with low-income freshmen who work one to 14 hours per week. Only 20 percent of them do not receive a degree. Higher education is a public good, and the public should insist on free access to the academy. Fortunately, there's a campaign to push for such access. Initiated by the Debs-Jones-Douglass Institute, a nonprofit educational organization based in Washington, D.C., the campaign calls for the federal government to pay all tuition and fees for all students attending two-year and four-year public colleges and universities.
This proposal isn't costly. The total bill for all students currently enrolled in public institutions is less than $27 billion -- a little more than 1 percent of current federal budgets, and less than one-third of Bush's $87 billion request for Iraq and Afghanistan. The idea is catching on.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently announced a plan to cover the full costs of an education for poor students without forcing them to take on loans. Students will have to work in state and federal work-study programs at a manageable 10 to 12 hours per week. Free college education has a clear precedent. The GI Bill paid full tuition and fees, as well as a stipend, for nearly 8 million returning World War II veterans. That investment had a broadly positive effect on the economy and society as a whole. We've done it before. We can do it again. This time for everyone.
Adolph L. Reed Jr. is professor of political science on the Graduate Faculty of Social and Political Science at the New School for Social Research and national co-chair of the campaign for Free Higher Education (www.freehighered.org).