Few people oppose the idea of compulsory K-12 education, but nationwide access to free public schools would not have turned into reality without populist pressure from the progressive movement that began during the 1980s. As of 2013, America’s high school graduation rate hit 81%— a steep comparison from the year 1940, when only half of the young population graduated with a high school diploma. But with today’s “qualification inflation” combined with the economy increasingly turning into one of knowledge rather than labor, it is becoming more and more difficult for young Americans to get a job without college education. Long gone are the days when a high school degree meant a golden ticket to a decent-paying career with good benefits.
US senator Bernie Sanders mentioned during his campaign, “An important pathway to the middle class now runs through higher education”. Yet only 30% of Americans who start college or university end up graduating. With a steady increase of tuition rates in private universities and the defunding of community colleges, this hardly comes as a surprise. Last year, tuition and fees at a four-year public university averaged $9,410; and the student loan debt statistics for 2017 states that Americans owe over $1.4 trillion in student loans — $620 billion more than the total U.S. credit card debt. Today it would take a minimum wage worker an entire year to earn enough to cover the annual in-state tuition at a public university. This explains the high drop out rate.
Education reform has long been an issue in nation-level politics in the United States, beginning in 1877 when Rutherford B. Hayes became the first president to endorse tuition-free education. “Universal suffrage should rest upon universal education,” he said in his inaugural address, adding that “liberal and permanent provision should be made for the support of free schools”. During his presidency, Obama made his case for universal, free tertiary education, stating that it is “a prerequisite for prosperity”, and that “the single most important thing we can do is to make sure we’ve got a world-class education system for everybody”. Even after paving its way to the fore of American politics during the last presidential election, not many concrete steps have been taken to alleviate the financial burden that overshadows 44 million graduates in America, and the idea remain to be seen as a mere dream of idealists by many.
The estimated cost of making all public higher education free in America would be between fifteen and thirty billion dollars. While this number might sound staggering, it could be the only hope of restoring the American dream and the economic patterns of the country that have been crushed by the soaring college debt. When the government decides to cut their budget on public college and university funding, the entire educational process is affected; the full-funding of large numbers of students would reduce the likelihood of college administrators resorting to migrant laborers and underpaid part-time and full-timers in temporary positions. It would also provide them with the backbone to resist the growing takeover of education by wealthy individuals and corporations that are reshaping education in favor of their own interests.
Even during this time when the long-term value and job potential of a college degree are obscured by persisting economic uncertainty, 89% of Americans still believe a college education is worth the money, and is one of the best investments one can make in a lifetime. Aside from making up the country’s educated workforce, college graduates need less government assistance. During their lifetime they pay more taxes, are healthier, are less likely to be involved in criminal activity, and more likely to volunteer in their communities and to vote. When the dreams of individual citizens are met, the social and economic fabric of the country is strengthened—that is the beauty of American higher education.
Now over 60% of Americans back tuition-free college, according to a survey by Bankrate, which polled 1,000 people in late July 2016. Seventy-seven percent of people ages 18 to 29 supported tuition-free college while roughly half of people 50 and older did. Not surprisingly, universal access to higher education was more popular with millenials than baby boomers, who suffer most from the enormous hike in tuition fees.
Social progress is not linear, and it has never been. Where we stand today is not without decades of oblivion, moral struggles and political activism. With hindsight, it is easy for us to point out the moral illness of genocide, slavery, gender discrimination, and other social issues. Perhaps the future will come where the denial of a person’s full participation in society due to their circumstance at birth will be looked back at as part of history.