June 2, 2023

universal higher education is inevitable

Today’s Events in Historical Perspective
America’s Longest-Running Column Founded 1932
Free universal higher education is inevitable
By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
          WASHINGTON — It is not only Republicans failing to understand President Biden’s executive order canceling $10,000 in student debt for those who qualify. Some Democrats also say the relief should be better targeted to reach only those who are truly needy.
          Reality is otherwise. For most of the nation’s first hundred years, universal education was not widespread, evolving instead as the national need evolved from an agrarian to a mostly industrial economy. Today, the economy has increasingly become technologically oriented, requiring a corresponding demand for better educated workers. This is not 1922 or 1822; it is 2022, and two-to-four-year college graduates have become essential to much of the economy.
          Just as a society, we decided that a basic retirement income through Social Security and health care through Medicare are human rights, we also realized that elementary and secondary school education was a right, a necessity for the nation’s growth and competitiveness, not a privilege for individuals. Further, it provided children from all walks of life to share in the American dream, which in turn increased the nation’s creativity and productivity, especially once female and minority children began to receive the benefits only education can offer.
          So, the idea of reducing student debt loads is not just a necessity, it is a first step on the road to free universal higher education. As with most changes, it is inevitable because its time has come like the women’s vote that took such a long and arduous road to achieve, first with some states such as Wyoming in 1869 and finally with ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. This same incrementalism will be seen in free universal higher education.
          It began with the 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act known as the GI Bill that provided World War II service members an array of benefits, including college or vocational school tuition and living expenses. That this contributed to the post-war economic boom cannot be disputed. Higher education so fed the dynamic American economic machine that college and vocational schooling became ubiquitous and continuous even after the GI Bill expired in 1956.
          Once government funding began to diminish, the slack was taken up by families or by students who could earn enough to pay relatively low tuitions. This and some government grant programs were followed by student loans as educational costs rose partly because the demand for schooling outpaced the supply of accredited schools and partly because computer and other technologies required more expensive equipment, facilities, and qualified professors.
          Eventually, higher education costs and the debts to pay for them exploded. Industry and the nation needed more and more higher education graduates, and for a time wages made the educational costs worthwhile. However, over wage inflation eventually fell behind education inflation, once again creating an imbalance where certain degrees proved to be far more financially rewarding than others. Teachers and nurses, for example, found themselves struggling to pay onerous student loans with wages that simply did not keep pace. But the nation needs teachers and nurses, both of which are in short supply, hence the need for debt cancellation.
          And how many brilliant minds are being lost to financial inability? Yes, they could roll the dice, take on heavy debt loads, and become physicians who move into lucrative specialties. But why should the nation subject the future of medical science to a dice roll that is certain to inhibit brilliant students from even trying?
          This brings us back to incrementalism that begins with limited debt relief, followed by increasingly greater relief until we finally realize that like free universal elementary and secondary education, free higher education is also a right, albeit only for those who academically qualify. After all, it should not have been up to a group of patrons to recognize an orphaned Alexander Hamilton’s potential and pay his way through college; it should have been up to all taxpayers because the world eventually benefitted from his philosophical and economic genius.
          See Eleanor Clift’s latest book Selecting a President, and Douglas Cohn’s latest books The President’s First Year: The Only School for Presidents Is the Presidency and World War 4: Nine Scenarios (endorsed by seven flag officers).
          Twitter:  @douglas_cohn
          © 2022 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
          Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

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