Is the United States Ready for Free Public Higher Education?

Dear Commons Community,

Jack Hammond, a colleague at Hunter College, alerted me to an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education that examines the question of whether the United States would be better off establishing a policy of free public higher education.  Written by Robert Samuels, president of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers, it raises the question of why not consolidate the myriad of financial aid, federal subsidies, state subsidies, tax shelters, etc. into a financial package that establishes a free public higher education system in this country.  Samuels provides some extensive data analysis:

“The first step is to calculate how much it would cost to make all public higher education free in the United States. In 2008-9, there were 6.5 million full-time-equivalent undergraduate students enrolled in public four-year universities and 4.3 million enrolled in community colleges. In 2009-10, the average cost of tuition, room, and board for undergraduates at public four-year institutions was $15,014; at two-year public colleges, it was $7,703. If we multiply the number of students in each segment of public higher education by the average total cost, we discover that the cost of making all public universities free would have been $97-billion in 2009-10, with an annual cost of $33-billion for all community colleges—or a total of $130-billion.

While $130-billion seems like a large figure, we need to remember that in 2010, the federal government spent more than $30-billion on Pell Grants and $104-billion on student loans, and the states spent at least $10-billion on financial aid for universities and colleges and an additional $76-billion for direct support of higher education. Furthermore, looking at various state and federal tax breaks and deductions for tuition, it might be possible to make all public higher education free by just using current resources in a more effective manner.”

Furthermore, he states:

“Replacing the current mix of financial aid, institutional aid, tax subsidies, and grants with direct support for public institutions would give the government a way to control costs at both public and private universities and colleges. The federal government could also require states to maintain their support for public institutions in return for increased federal support. And once we stabilize financial support and make higher education free, there will be no need for so many students and institutions to go into debt.”

He concludes that our current system of higher education favors and perpetuates wealth inequality and cautions that current funding policies are pushing many of our public colleges and universities to privatize.