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Free College Is the Answer to Our Higher Education Crisis

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New York City provided it during the Great Depression. America offered it to veterans after World War II. We need it today: Free College. Yes, I mean a tuition free college education for all qualified students. And there's a way to do it without a government bailout or corporate control. So politicians and pundits on the left and right should love it. Best of all, an existing model persuasively says the plan can work. But first, here's why free college is a must.

Our nation is facing a crisis--with vast domestic and worldwide implications--that can only be addressed by thinking out of the box about education. Just look at the disturbing figures. The U.S., once the leader in the percentage of college graduates between the ages of 25-34, has dropped to number 12 out of the 36 developed nations. Here's what a report from the National Commission on Adult Literacy says: "The U.S. is the only country among 30 OECD free-market countries where the current generation is less well educated than the previous one. The U.S. is also losing ground in international comparisons in terms of high school diplomas and college degrees awarded."

More dismal news: 30 percent of our college freshmen drop out in the first year and more than 40 percent don't graduate--and not primarily because they can't keep up academically. The runaway cost of higher education is pushing students out of the halls of learning. Add to that the crippling student loans that will burden students and their families for decades. Student debt is now greater than total credit card debt for the entire nation. Outstanding student loans total more than a staggering $979 billion and that figure is growing at the rate of $2,854 a second, with the average student debt now exceeding $25,000.

These outrageous costs hurt us now and will continue to hurt us well into the future. They deprive qualified students of the education and skills they need to participate successfully in the 21st century knowledge-based economy. And student debt is certain to reduce discretionary spending for decades ahead--not good news for a spending-starved economy.

Shouldn't we be concerned about this alarming trend?. U.S. companies like Apple are moving their manufacturing operations to Asia where qualified workers are more abundant. Some commentators claim that we don't' have an educational crisis and insist that America has enough trained technologically literate workers to produce products like the iPhone-- or a big enough pool of workers who can be trained to do the job.

While Apple and other companies may not be totally truthful about whether it's skills or salaries that impels them to look abroad, there is substantial evidence that many companies genuinely can't find trained workers on our shores--a trend that has been building over the last decade. Punctuating that point, businesses that currently hire American workers complain about how hard it is to find adequately skilled employees; often they face the uncomfortable choice of either hiring unqualified local workers or recruiting workers from outside their areas and even from overseas.. They worry about the future of the American workforce as our educational system continues to deteriorate.

How can we educate our young people to meet the needs of American business? The federal government is aware of the problem, but doesn't have a strong solution. Addressing the crisis in higher education, President Obama threatened to withdraw federal funding to colleges that jack up tuition. He also proposed lowering interest rates and repayment schedules on student loans. The President wants to put a lid on college tuition to make it "affordable." In his latest statement--"Race to the Top"-- he offers to help states reduce the soaring cost of higher education and to bolster campus based funds for students through programs like Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, low interest loans (Perkins Loans) and an increase in the Work-Study program.

In the face of our "crisis" aren't these measures more like a sluggish march than a race to the top--a small bandage for a massive wound?

If we are to compete successfully with countries like China and India bolder action is called for. We must stop tweaking the machinery when a major overhaul is needed. There is an answer: Free college education.

I can hear the uproar: "That's crazy. Don't you know we are barely climbing out of a recession? Haven't you heard about the $15 trillion dollar national debt? "No we can't," will ring out across the land.

Sociologist Theodore Roszak once observed in an address to the American Society of Aging (ASA) that when the automobile was invented, it was a leisure class plaything. There weren't many paved roads, so you couldn't comfortably travel very far. A Commentary in Harpers Weekly in 1902 didn't see that changing anytime soon: "The actual building of roads devoted to motor cars is not for the near future, in spite of many rumors to that effect." Yet there were visionaries who saw that the automobile would be the way that goods would move quickly throughout the country. And they knew that this would call for the construction of a national highway system. Naysayers rose up: "That's crazy, we can't afford it. You're talking hundreds of millions of dollars" (at a time when millions actually counted). But we did it. Why? Because, as Roszak explained, we valued commerce and recognized that a national highway system was essential for economic development and leadership in the 20th century.

What about the 21st century?

Education is the driving vehicle for economic success in the 21st century. If we want to retain economic leadership, we better make sure that our workforce is up to speed. And the best way to accomplish that is to offer higher education at no cost. And yes we can do it and here's why I know it can work. For the last 20 years I have been associated with a program I helped found--and was Executive Director of for three years-- that is a model for a free college education. As you will see in my next article, this remarkable educational enterprise turned out to be a perfect model for free college education. Stay tuned for details.