Letter to the Editor: Free higher education is, in fact, feasible

(Shannon Broderick/ Daily Collegian)
(Shannon Broderick/ Daily Collegian)

To the Editor:

In “Marching in the Wrong Direction,” Stefan Golas makes a number of arguments against the feasibility and desirability of free higher education. Many of these points are also made by others who oppose abolishing tuition and fees, so we should examine them in more detail.

Golas takes it as self-evident that debt relief to the tune of $1 trillion would not only be impossible, but also destructive to the economy. Note that he makes this claim without any evidence, but let’s address it anyway by looking at history. Take for example the Funding Act of 1790, where the federal government assumed the state debts incurred during the Revolutionary War. The ratio of the cost ($21.3 million in 1790 dollars) to total gross domestic product at the time would have been somewhere between six and seven percent. Turning to the present, the ratio of student loan debt to total GDP (in 2014) is about five percent. Thus we can dispense with the notion that the supposed detrimental effects of debt forgiveness should be taken as given.

On the issue of desirability of free education, Golas claims that increased supply of college students will “steepen the continued devaluation of a bachelor’s degree.” On the contrary, a recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that the education-wage gap has grown larger over the past 15 years. A college graduate can expect to earn at least a million dollars more over the course of a lifetime than someone with just a high school diploma.

Pursuing that line of thought brings us to Golas’ most interesting argument: Because college is a financial decision, it makes no sense for protesters to complain about the high costs. In other words, higher education is a private commodity like a restaurant meal, not a public good such as police and military protection, roads, national parks, elementary education and so on. While that view is increasingly common in the U.S., it would be considered quite outlandish in much of the developed world (and indeed, many third-world countries) where higher education is free or mostly free. Here, in the richest country in world history, costs for students and their families have surged ahead of inflation over the past 25 years. That is truly scandalous.

Golas further writes that the whole protest is pointless because change will “never happen in our lifetimes due to the immense clout of those on Wall Street.” He seems to have forgotten that many of the benefits of modern life that we take for granted – weekends, mass schooling, civil rights and so on – came out of struggle against powerful interests. There is no law of nature that says that society cannot make progress toward some ideal, whether it be tuition-free college or anything else.

Realistically, yes, it is likely that none of us would ever personally reap the benefits of a more equitable higher education system. Does that mean we should abandon future generations and only look after ourselves? That is not how progress is made, and it certainly is not the kind of society that any rational person should want to live in.

Michael Berner

Class of 2016