Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Free College Tuition Would Be Investment in the Future

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Free College Tuition Would Be Investment in the Future

Article excerpt

RECENT arguments about the cost of college tuition neglect its history in the United States. Rising tuition reflects the denigration of the value of the student to society.

The effort to shift the financial burden onto the student is an effort to reduce the tax burden in public institutions and to create a "user tax" (tuition) imposed on students and parents.

The cost of higher education in public universities was never expected to be borne by student fees or tuition. Payment for instruction, cannot cover even the cost of teaching, let alone the larger costs of university operations.

When the total costs of higher education increase, is it reasonable to transfer the burden of the increase to student tuition in place of state subsidies by taxation to all citizens? The assumption of many at the federal and state levels is that it is reasonable, and the fact of decades of rising tuition rates is clear evidence of this belief.

The basic assumption that feeds this movement is: As the principal beneficiary of his education, the student should be expected to assume the financial responsibility. Sometimes the matter is hedged by saying "some of the responsibility," but the actual implication should be obvious: Make up budget short-falls by assessing those who benefit directly and who have money. If they don't have money, then offer them long-term loans payable beginning after graduation.

The proposal of national service put forward by President Clinton is also a loan. It requires national service at a time when the new graduate is most eager to enter the job market.

The inchoate argument, not easily formed, runs approximately this way: Students are no longer so worthy of further tax subsidies. The costs of education have overreached the ability of taxes to meet them. Therefore, since the student is the true beneficiary of the education, let him carry more of the cost burden. Increase tuition. He can pay for it after graduation, because his earning power will be much greater than that of the nongraduate - 160 percent more by one estimate. Because his earning power is greater, he can afford to pay for his tuition: Buy now, pay later - a familiar mantra in our culture.

The central argument cannot succeed because it is not true that the student is the sole principal beneficiary of his education.

The assumption of virtually all major institutions of higher learning in the US during the 19th and 20th centuries, until recent decades, was this: An educated citizen, especially a professionally educated one, is a prime benefit to the state, nation, the world. His cultural, intellectual, creative, and financial contributions over his entire lifetime repay manifold dividends beyond the brief four-year expense of his formal education subsidized by the commonwealth as a whole, by the community of citizens. …

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