America has always been a nation which invests in its future. In the early 19th century, Congress funded roads, canals, and other transportation infrastructure to spur development and reduce the cost of goods and services. We subsidized railroads in the latter half of the 19th century, and funded what became known as the interstate highway system in much of the 20th century.
We are also concerned about the welfare of its people, having faith that an educated population results in a better citizenry and country. When tens of millions of American servicemen returned home from World War II, it was the GI Bill (formally known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act) which provided tuition assistance to attend college or obtain technical training. More than 7.5 million Americans took advantage of the GI Bill. (Its vestige is with us today in the tuition assistance which armed forces veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan employ for higher education.)
Although it had flaws, the GI Bill helped establish a sizable educated middle class and enabled the U.S. to emerge from the post-World War II era as the world’s leading economy for nearly 50 years. Notable is the fact that the G.I. Bill was a bipartisan effort, accomplished as a world war approached its end. Harry Colmery, then a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a former American Legion commander, was the principal author and advocate for the legislation. President Roosevelt signed it into law in late 1944.
In this context, President Obama is proposing to provide free higher education at community colleges across the U.S. It makes sense. If you haven’t heard about it, here’s a link to the video the White House released last week:
The long lens of history supports this type of investment in human capital which our country has made in the past. Concomitant with the GI Bill was the ascendancy of the U.S. system of higher education. Prior to the two World Wars of the 20th century, Europe was considered the center of collegiate learning. But by the ’60s, the United States led the world in the percentage of its population earning college degrees.
Somehow, that was expected in America. For hundreds of years, the U.S. has regarded higher education as a public good. Our nation believes that each generation would advance – intellectually, economically, culturally and socially – beyond the one before, and higher education institutions would help champion this advance. We were the “best and brightest” on the planet. We tamed the atom, broke the sound barrier, cured polio and other diseases, and sent humans to the moon and back.
Well, we’re not the best and brightest anymore. Depending upon the source, the U.S. now ranks between 15th and 20th in the world in the percentage of our adults obtaining a college degree. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) placed the U.S. 19th out of 28 countries in college completion in its “Education at a Glance” report, released in September 2014.
The OECD measures education investment and the performance of wealthier democracies. Higher education levels are associated with higher earnings (no surprise) but also with better health, more community engagement, and also more trust in governments, institutions and people.
Against this backdrop comes President Barack Obama’s proposal. It’s an intriguing one, and it should spur some deep intellectual analysis and spirited discussions at a critical time for our nation.
EXPECTATIONS, FUNDING, AND A SHRINKING MIDDLE CLASS
Our nation’s residents long for college completion. A late 2012 Lumina Foundation survey with the Gallup Poll showed that 97 percent of Americans believe it is important to have a certificate or degree beyond high school. In the same survey though, only 26 percent of respondents believe that the cost of higher education is affordable to anyone who needs it. And just 27 percent believe that the quality of higher education is worse today that it was in the past.
Here are some additional facts we – as a nation – should consider:
- Public funding of higher education is declining dramatically. As recently as 1985, state and federal support provided more than 80 percent of revenues at public higher education institutions. That percent is now below 60 percent nationally, and below 50 percent in many states.
- Individual students are shouldering an ever-increasing percentage of college costs. The chart below show’s a “net revenue per student” figure which accentuates the fact that U.S. college students have now borrowed $1.2 TRILLION to cover higher education expenses. Students graduating with $30,000, $40,000 or $50,000 in debt is quite common today.
- The middle class is shrinking. Median household income “peaked” at just over $56,000 in 1999, and it has been going downward every year since then.
LET’S PURSUE IT
President Obama’s plan, as unveiled and expanded upon, is well worth deliberating. This writer would make suggestions for improvements. There should be economic means testing, and the concept of a payback (such as through community service) could move the plan from paper to reality.
Facing facts, the political gridlock in Washington, DC might make ANY compromise impossible in 2015. But let’s hope our nation’s political leaders give this proposal a try. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain when our nation invests in improving the educational attainment of its citizens. If we remain in the bottom third of democratic nations in our citizens’ college completion rate, that bodes ill for our future.
NOTE – There are many good articles out there on this topic, but I want to draw your attention to Debbie Cochrane and her work at The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), a non-profit education advocacy program.
LINKS AND SOURCES — Read more at:
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You will be seeing more blogs on this site, either from me or from my students, in the weeks ahead. My family situation underwent a significant change around October 1, which affected my blogging output. Perhaps I’ll address this further in a future post.
Finally — Please do share this posting. The greater the discussion about the idea of free community college and the need for our nation to improve its college completion rate, the better.