By Morley Winograd and Harris Miller
Advocates of free college tuition are often challenged by the question: How do we pay for it? Twelve states and well over 200 local communities already have found an answer to that question and have such programs in place. But for those state leaders who realize they need a free college program to remain economically competitive, as well as to make sure their residents have the opportunity to obtain the skills necessary for a well-paying job, yet do not have a funding source, we now have a new answer – sports betting.
The recent Supreme Court decision permitting states to authorize sports betting is a potentially large new revenue source. Some states are ready to go. Others may be initially reluctant. Yet, as we have seen from the steady expansion of state lotteries, that reluctance dissipates quickly as states scramble for funds to maintain a balanced budget without increasing or creating taxes.
For states looking to join the free tuition bandwagon, now is the time to get on board.
Recent national polling data show directing new revenue to make college tuition free is popular regardless of a voter’s party identification. Spending new money on making community colleges tuition free was ranked third, behind only health care and K-12 programs. Making four-year colleges tuition free was ranked fourth.
Why is free college tuition so popular? Because it makes so much sense. Whether an employer or a prospective employee, everyone knows that more education means better jobs, more economic opportunity, and a stronger economy. Which means more state tax revenue to spend on other priorities. A Federal Reserve Bank of Boston Working Paper conservatively estimates that the average net fiscal effect for individual states is nearly $82,000 per four-year-equivalent degree.
Having a skilled workforce is essential to growing existing and attracting new employers. The experience of Tennessee, which pioneered statewide free community college, demonstrates that investments in a more skilled workforce deliver dividends by attracting employers looking for something more than state handouts or a less expensive workforce. Almost every state has a "skills mismatch", meaning employers need workers, but the available, local workforce lacks the specific skills to get hired. And unemployed and underemployed workers are looking for good jobs, but they lack the requisite training and skills.
Free college tuition is the most effective and quickest way to reduce that mismatch. It benefits the young who are just looking to get on the first rung of an economic ladder and older workers who have been displaced by technology or foreign competition. Our country decided to end free public education after 12 grades over a century ago when our country was just transitioning from an agricultural to an industrial economy. Today, we have entered a new era based on technology and innovation, a time of “New Collar” jobs, when jobs that require getting one’s hands dirty, such as automobile repair, and new occupations, such as network administration, both require substantial training and education. It is time to change the standard to 12 Plus, with everyone committed to free public education through high school and beyond.
Free tuition is an idea whose time has come. Now, thanks to the Supreme Court ruling, the money to pay for implementing the idea is available. One political leader once referred to an adversary as “Someone who never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Let’s trust that states will not miss this opportunity.
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.