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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Column: American colleges need to be free

In most of the developed world, quality public higher education is considered a right of citizenship — or even, as in Germany, all of Scandinavia and much of the rest of the world’s richest countries, a human right. This means that international students can also access it for free, alongside native citizens.

The model of free tuition and, in some cases, room and board represents a core, fundamental element of the national characters, missions and economies of some of the most highly developed, happiest countries on earth.

Austerity policies have seen some countries with previously nominal or nonexistent college fees, such as the U.K., Australia and Canada, increase tuition fees. Still, the fees in these countries pale in comparison to the cost of American universities.

It is not an issue of quality. Many public and for-profit American universities cost more than Cambridge, Oxford, McGill University or the University of Toronto, let alone private schools that generally cost over $60,000 yearly with room and board or the mediocre and supposedly cheap for-profit colleges.

For-profit schools have been criticized for preying on veterans for their G.I. Bill benefits in exchange for the privilege of attending a substandard school from which they will almost certainly fail to graduate.

For-profit colleges are collecting a disproportionate amount of money in the silly system of grants and loans by which we ineffectively try to expand access to college for working- and middle-class students.

This is profoundly important because, contrary to popular belief, the problem isn’t that the U.S. doesn’t have the money for free college. That money is there — we’re already spending it.

A report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers found that the combined tuition revenue of all public universities and community colleges in fiscal year 2013 was $61.8 billion. Meanwhile, according to the New America Foundation, Washington currently dedicates $67.7 billion to grants, education tax breaks and work-study money.

In short, as Jordan Weissmann recently wrote in Slate, “If you took the money out of the private sector and put back it into the public sector, it could cover all of today’s undergrads, and then some.”

Screw the private sector. If it wants to survive, it should figure out how to compete with the tuition-free public universities that our country needs and could so easily have.

Germany recently tried implementing small university fees of about $630 per semester, but the population largely found it to be unjust and unfair to students from poor and working-class backgrounds, not to mention bad economic policy. Fees were quickly abandoned state by state, with Lower Saxony abolishing the last remaining fees late last year.

Likewise, in Chile, massive student protests rocked that country for nearly half a decade in protest of its privatized education system. Chile’s Minister of Interior, Rodrigo Peñailillo, according to TeleSUR, has announced that the country will implement free tertiary education by 2016. If Chile has the resources, surely the U.S. does, too. 

The only activism on college campuses these days about which one hears are campaigns to institute more trigger warnings and safe spaces and cancel speeches by controversial figures. American college students should be getting outraged about the cost of education.

No issue affects us more than the $1.2 trillion we owe in student loans. It is ruining young peoples’ lives. It is ruining the housing and automobile markets, as millennials can no longer afford these luxuries. If it takes years of massive protests and strikes, as it did for Chilean students, so be it. Literally nothing is more important for students and the country as a whole — or for reclaiming the meritocratic nature of the American dream.


Martin Forstrom is a senior studying sociology and Latin American studies. Follow him on Twitter.

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