To Hell With Student Loans -- It's Time for College to be Free

Perhaps we should be more like the Europeans. When something outrageous or irrational happens within their government the people are ready to hit the streets in protest. In France they'll shut down whole cities to get their point across to elected officials.


In the United States we just grin and bear it. And so we've suffered under a system where a college education -- the key to a better life, rapidly skyrockets causing more of us to assume unmanageable debt. For the first time in history, we Americans owe more on our student loans than we do on our credit cards. The average college graduate today now finds herself with $24,000 of education related debt.

Those of us hounded mercilessly by Sallie Mae understand what it's like to work as peasants on Queen Sallie's fiefdom handing over our hard earned money harvest to service her majesty. Student loans muscle out entertainment, transportation and even food and rent for limited budget space.

But those of us with a college degree may be the lucky ones. With grant aid drying up, budget problems forcing states to increase tuition costs, and a Great Recession college has simply become unattainable for many. In a bankrate.com survey nearly 47 percent of parents feel they can no longer afford to send their children to college. Many will resort to raiding their retirement accounts to pay college costs.

Ironically, it's the poor and middle class who are being priced out of the very thing that enables their children to seek a better life. At the same time the United States is being outclassed by China, India, and others who are producing increasing numbers of highly educated graduates. Soon they will be eating our lunch, relegating us to second class status on the world stage.

Tough problems demand "outside the box," often radical solutions. That's why we should give serious consideration to providing free college and trade school education to all.

Too costly you say? It's estimated that the cost of tuition at public universities across the nation amounted to between $70 to $100 billion dollars. Sounds expensive until you realize providing free higher education for American citizens would cost slightly more than the Bush tax cuts for the top 2 percent of the country.

Heck I would not only allow the Bush tax cuts to expire for the wealthiest but would add an additional 2 percent tax increase to the highest wage earners, all but paying for free public higher education. Why tax the mega-rich to pay for higher education for everyone else? Contrary to popular belief, it's not the wealthy that create jobs. Instead it's demand for a product or service that creates the jobs to meet that demand.

The wealthy would benefit the most from a well educated and consequently well-paid work force.

A work force that, as a result, would create demand for the products produced by the small businesses and companies the wealthy own.

To put the costs in another perspective, the price tag for free public college education would be less than $136 billion spent in Iraq and Afghanistan last year.  While we're busy bombing and rebuilding nations abroad, we're neglecting our "intellectual infrastructure" here at home.

And unlike money shoveled off to the mega wealthy or wasted in the abyss of unattainable wars, dollars spent on college education would ultimately expand the economy. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that a college educated person will earn $900,000 more over the course of a lifetime than a high school graduate. This money would be spent on everything from clothes and entertainment to cars and houses -- in the process stimulating the economy and creating even more new jobs in an upward spiral of prosperity. Furthermore, the government would garner considerable tax revenue from the nearly 1 million in additional lifetime earnings from each college graduate.

Let's not forget that increasing the pool of college educated workers improves the ability of the country to discover the next breakthrough in biology, nanotechnology, or computer science -- a process that would create entire new industries and promote further prosperity. Currently only 4 of the top 10 companies receiving U.S. patents in 2009 were American companies. Without a well educated workforce we risk that the next great technology will be invented overseas and then imported here to America.

To those who claim free higher education smells of a "government takeover" of education, a "socialist scheme," let's remember we did this before. The original GI Bill provided free college educations to 7 million WW II veterans, and in the process set the stage for a prosperous middle class. In fact, it's estimated that the GI bill returned nearly $7 to the economy for every $1 spent on it.

While the economic benefits of free higher education are convincing enough, we can't overlook the social arguments. Free college or trade school education for all would bring America back in line with its egalitarian promise that all people, regardless of wealth or social standing, have the same opportunity for success. The poor and middle class alike would have the same opportunities as the wealthy to send their children to college - giving them the chance to climb the social ladder.

One cannot overlook the fact that free higher education would attract renewed interest in underpaid and under-appreciated fields of work. How many burgeoning teachers or social workers changed career paths because their desired line of work simply wouldn't pay the student loan bills? Free higher education would provide incentive for students to pursue their passion without the weight of crushing debt. As a result, all of society would benefit.

I can just hear the critics proclaiming students would never appreciate something given to them for free. The simple solution -- tie free education to required service.

A student receiving two years of tuition could be required to "repay" the government with a year in volunteer program similar to the Peace Corp, Teach for America, or City Year. The benefits to society would double -- volunteers working to address some of America's most pressing needs along with a well educated American workforce.

American progress has always been fueled by bold visions. Martin Luther King refused to sit timidly in the back of the bus. Dwight Eisenhower had the idea for the vast interstate highway system we now take for granted. JFK saw no reason we couldn't send a man to the moon.

Men and women can serve as politicians nibbling at the edges of problems making small almost imperceptable changes. Or they can act as leaders audaciously tackling challenges in a way that makes a true difference.

The student loan crisis and the vanishing dream of a college education represent true threats to future American prosperity. It's time for leaders to step to the plate with bold solutions.

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