Magazine article Academe

Free Higher Education

Magazine article Academe

Free Higher Education

Article excerpt

Once, financial aid was seen as a way to democratize universities and colleges, Today's financial aid policies are widening the gap between educational haves and have-nots, Free tuition will reverse this trend.

The crisis of affordability in higher education is intensifying. Illustrations of its resonance abound: from the frequent news articles describing and amplifying the crisis and its sources to legislators' and candidates' proposed responses. Republicans' responses tend to be mainly punitive toward institutions; Democrats' proposals are more complicated and expensive than they need to be, and less capable of garnering broad support from the American people.1

There is, however, a clear, simple, and direct way to have a significant impact on this crisis of access. It begins from the assumption that higher education should be available as a right in our public colleges for all applicants who meet admissions standards regardless of their ability to pay. To make it so, the federal government should pay tuition and fees for all students, part and full time, who are enrolled in two- and four-year public institutions in the United States. (Eighty-three percent of undergraduates now attend public institutions.)

The AAUP's Collective Bargaining Congress has adopted the proposal, as have several individual collective bargaining chapters, state AFL-CIO bodies in Oregon and South Carolina, and dozens of other unions, academic organizations, and community and advocacy groups across the country. We believe that this proposal, which is modeled partly on the post-World War II GI Bill of Rights, is an idea whose time has come again.

For most of the post-World War II era, higher education was viewed as the vehicle for closing the gap between the top and the bottom of the economic ladder. It was seen as the key to opportunity and upward mobility-part of what defined the American Dream. There was no finer expression, or more effective engine, of this belief than the GI Bill, under which the federal government offered millions of returning veterans full tuition to college and a living-wage stipend while they were enrolled. The broad, positive impact of this one policy on our society is well recorded.

Today, however, higher education shows all the signs of following the disturbing trends that are fueling economic polarization in society in general. In fact, higher education is now part of this process of shifting; income to the top. Here's how it works.

Rising tuition is not just a statistic. Together with the current structure of financial aid, it is furthering the transfer of money to wealthy families and the financial sector. Specifically, as tuition rises, access to college is limited to those who can afford increasing amounts of interest-bearing loans. As tuition rises, colleges are offering more merit-based aid, which tends to benefit wealthier families. As tuition rises, students and their families are taking on huge loan debt, which transfers money to financial and credit-card companies. As tuition rises, more pressure is put on financially strapped states and public colleges to fulfill the push to privatize public services, including higher education.

Thus not only is an entire financial sector growing and society's most affluent members personally benefiting from the income shift taking place in higher education, but concerns over rising tuition are also being used to promote the privatization of yet another public service-public higher education.

Financial Aid for the Wealthy

Huge increases in tuition and fees in our colleges and universities have become page-one news. Like health care costs, the price of a college education is skyrocketing. According to Trends in College Pricing 2003, published by the College Board, tuition and fees at public two- and four-year colleges and universities increased 14 percent compared with the previous year. When room and board and other expenses are taken into account, public institutions cost $20,879, on average, for an out-of-state student and $13,833 for an in-state student. …

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