In his book The Price of Civilization, Jeffrey Sachs argues that the cost of making all public higher education free in America would be between fifteen and thirty billion dollars. While this may sound like a large sum, it could actually save money. First of all, the government is currently spending billions of dollars on for-profit schools and other colleges and universities that have very low graduation rates. In fact, what is going on in the state of California is that as students get priced out of the University of California, they either drop out or go to community colleges. Meanwhile as community colleges are defunded, they are forced to cut their enrollments and raise their fees, and the result is that students end up going to high-cost for-profit schools that have a very low graduate rate. In other words, in the current system, everyone pays more, and we produce fewer graduates.
Currently, only 30% of Americans who start college or university end up graduating, and this represents a huge waste of time and money. If students did not have to work while in school, the graduation rate would improve drastically, and students at universities could graduate in four years instead of six or more years. In fact, the biggest reason why students drop out of higher education is that they cannot afford the high cost of tuition.
Not only is higher education seen as a key to economic advancement, but if all 18-24 year olds were in college, we would reduce the unemployment rate by 2 million people, and fewer people would be in need of governmental assistance. Moreover, a federal program to fund higher education would relieve states of having to fund these institutions, which would free up money for other needed services.
While the US has a free K-12 public education, its failure to fund higher education means that America's economy is unable to compete with other developed nations that have free universities. Furthermore, by removing the need for students to go into debt, the government would allow graduates to be more productive, and they would have more money to spend, which in turn would act as a stimulus for the economy.
Of course, there are reasons beyond economics to provide free higher education. Not only do we need a more educated workforce, but we also need more educated citizens. It is also important to point out that people with higher education degrees report a higher level of health and happiness. In fact, societies with a high rate of degree attainment have lower crime rates and higher rates of social welfare.
While President Obama has endorsed the need for the U.S. to increase the number of citizens with higher education degrees, he has done very little to support this process. Not only do we need to push our politicians to support free universal higher education, but we have to show the voting populace that a federal program would help to alleviate the incredible expense that postsecondary education now costs middle-class families.
Along with funding higher education, the federal government could also rein in costs by setting realistic caps on tuition increases. Moreover, by improving access and affordability, the government could improve the quality of instruction by forcing schools to concentrate their spending on research and instruction. The federal government could also take on the task of rating and ranking colleges so that we are no longer dependent on US News & World Report, which has a corrosive influence on institutions of higher education. Instead of schools spending money on lavish amenities, universities and colleges could be motivated to concentrate their resources on reducing class size and hiring more full-time faculty.
While few people would now reject the idea of compulsory K-12 education, it is now time to make college universal and free.