Bob Samuels is president of UC-AFT and a lecturer at UCSB. He is the author of seven books including Why Public Higher Education Should be Free. He writes the blog Changing Universities.
President Obama’s plan to make the first two years of community college free is a great first step in the larger movement to increase college access, affordability, and quality. The president’s initiative will help to decrease the net cost of higher education for millions of students, and even if it does not get the support of Congress, the plan has already changed the public conversation about the future of higher education in the United States.
As student debt surpasses $1.2 trillion, average citizens and taxpayers are realizing that this level of debt is a major drag on our economy. Recent graduates are unable to start families or buyhouses and cars, and this reduction of consumer demand is hurting the present economic recovery. Students should not have to go into life-crippling debt into order to pay for higher education. Moreover, the more students borrow to finance their education, the more likely they are to drop out, and therefore, they are going into debt and not receiving degrees.
If the president’s plan does not pass out of Congress, there are several things he can do to help make college more affordable to millions of students. The federal government could require that every student applying to college fills out a FASFA. Currently, 47% do not complete the form, and the result is that students lose out on close to $3 billion in additional federal aid. Another way to help out low and moderate income students is to turn the current federal tuition tax deduction into a tax credit so that all students could take advantage of this program.
The federal government should also require states that receive federal aid to maintain their current levels of funding for higher education, and institutions receiving aid should only be allowed to increase their tuition by the rate of inflation. If the cost of higher education is controlled and state support is stabilized, additional federal funds can be used in a more effective manner.
There is one simple way to pay for the Obama plan without raising taxes- to require for-profit colleges to receive at least 50% of their support from non-federal sources. Currently, these institutions receive over $25 billion in federal aid, and they continue to have low graduation rates and high student loan default rates.
Furthermore, to improve the quality of higher education, federal and state funding should be tied to the following requirements for institutions receiving public support: 75% of faculty are full-time, 75% of student credit hours generated in classes with less than 26 students, 50% of tuition funding goes for direct instructional costs. Just as the government makes strong requirements for research grants and financial aid, it should also connect federal support to policies that will increase educational quality.
Currently I am heading up a task force for the Campaign for Free College Tuition to look at how to fund public higher education in a more equitable and effective manner. As I argue in my book, Why Public Higher Education Should be Free, it may be possible to make public undergraduate education tuition free just by using current resources in a more effective manner.
Our goal is to make higher education a possibility for every American, without regard to their financial circumstances.
We have a lot to do and not much time to do it, so your support is critical for our campaign to succeed. It’s with your investment that we can fundamentally reform how higher education is financed in this country, opening the doors to a more equitable society.
If you agree with our goal, our plan, and the urgency of the problem, we ask that you give what you can to help us write the next chapter in our nation’s history of continuously expanding access to universal, free education.