Why not free 4-year college?

Originally published in The Philadelphia Daily News May 8, 2015.

President Obama’s plan to extend free secondary education is a progressive means to rectify social and economic inequality and expand American leadership. The policy sets a long-overdue precedent that would allow millions of students to lift themselves from competing for low-skilled, low-paying jobs into meaningful trajectories that would generate revenue and foster innovation.

While Obama’s plan makes meaningful strides, we need a policy that goes even farther. The plan would have more impact if it was extended to a free two years at any university, with a second two years also free if the first two are successful, to allow a full four-year B.A. or B.S. The objects are opportunity to all and American worldwide economic leadership.

About 125,000 students are enrolled in public and private universities in Philadelphia. A federal 4-year plan would help the city’s students and outstanding colleges, including Temple, University of Pennsylvania, Drexel, Philadelphia University, La Salle, St. Joseph’s and the Community College of Philadelphia. Pennsylvania has the third-highest average student debt in the country, $32,500, but is No. 48 for dollars spent on higher education: 2 percent of state expenditures compared to the national average of 10 percent.

The 2014 state budget spent $240 million more on corrections than on education. How many of the over 2 million that the U.S. has in prison — the most in the world — would be there if they went to college? Only a quarter of low-income students complete a 4-year degree.

The nation is, and has been, ripe for education reform. Nearly 70 percent of the public says that improving education should be a top priority for government — with good reasons. In 1990, the United States ranked first in the world for 4-year degree completion, but now is 12th. This is not a coincidence. College prices have skyrocketed by 27 percent at public universities since 2008, yet states on average spend 28 percent less per student. After graduation, many students are now burdened with enormous debt. Students owe $1.3 trillion in debt, 86 percent of that total to the federal government.

The Community College of Philadelphia expanded on Obama’s plan, providing free tuition to low-income students graduating from Philadelphia’s public high schools. Paired with Obama’s initiative, this could make a huge impact in Philadelphia, where only 1 out of 10 students graduating from the city’s public high schools goes on to complete a degree. Forty percent of Philadelphia’s children live under the poverty line, and minorities are twice as likely to be poor as are Caucasians.

Twenty-one million students attend college — 7 million at two-year or community colleges and 14 million at universities. Three-quarters of all students have loans. Thirty-eight percent of higher-education costs are funded by public sources, compared to other developed countries where 70 percent comes from public funding. We should look at the fact that Germany, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway cover free higher education. Does Congress want to wait for another crisis like the housing fallout? When student loan debt is more than credit-card debt, there is an issue.

By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs will require a post-secondary degree, and 35 percent of those jobs will require a bachelors degree or higher. The federal budget spends 20 percent on military and defense, but only 2 percent on education.

Elizabeth Warren said that just between 2007 and 2012 the federal government was on target to produce $66 billion in profits from student loans. “The U.S. government,” she said, “should not be making profits on the backs of kids who are trying to get an education.”

Obama’s plan is probably even more than he can get away with, with a Congress dead-set on gridlock, so he might as well put the full objective in play, and maybe the next president and next Congress can enact it. The president’s proposal for two years of community college will change the dynamics of higher education, but continuing U.S. leadership starts with getting more people invested in the change. Students should be empowered to attend at all levels of college and get the highest degree possible.


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