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Debt Plagues Too Many College Graduates. Public Universities Should Be Free

Graduates of Baruch College participate in a commencement program at Barclays Center, Monday, June 5, 2017, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Graduates of Baruch College participate in a commencement program at Barclays Center, Monday, June 5, 2017, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

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Members of the Class of 2018:

I’d like to thank Cognoscenti for the chance to be your commencement speaker, especially as no accredited institution of higher learning has asked me. (Nor unaccredited institution, for that matter.) It’s a privilege to speak before such an elite group of aristocrats.

You heard me right. We Americans like to think we threw off an aristocratic mother country back when knee breeches were all the rage on campus. But the degrees you’re receiving today — if you don’t blow it and your luck holds — will admit you to the closest thing we have to the Windsors. You may not reach the rarified rungs of U.S. royalty occupied by the Rockefellers. But today’s earnings premium for those with four-year college degrees, compared to those with just high school, is almost $1.4 million over the average lifetime.

Here’s the thing: Like all aristocratic classes, the college-educated guard their privileges jealously. We have great advantages that should be available to more Americans. I hope in the next minute or so to persuade you to share those advantages, to expand our educational aristocracy.

There’s a lot of caterwauling these days about college. Republicans grouse about socialist indoctrination camps, while well-intentioned others insist that college isn’t for everyone.

These gripes are distractions. Yes, diversity of opinion can be mugged on campuses (by both liberals and conservatives), and yes, we need more things like apprenticeships to help those for whom higher education isn’t in the cards. Still, on average, college is such a trump card in our stacked deck of inequality that even Republicans tell pollsters they want their kids to go, so they can snare those good jobs that so many Republican voters supposedly lack.

I don’t mean to sound mercenary, ignoring the human self-improvement that comes from study and the liberal arts. I do mean to say that Lincoln was right to spy an added benefit when he created our public, land-grant universities. Those were designed deliberately to offer practical, non-classical education to grow the American middle class.

Yet Lincoln’s dream is besieged today.

Seventy percent of college students graduate owing significant student loans; the average exceeds $37,000, a burdensome headwind discouraging attendance. In particular, low-income students, plagued by poor K-through-12 schools and, well, low incomes, lag their wealthier peers in college enrollment.

Commendably, 100 of the nation’s top public and private schools have committed to enrolling more poor kids, but they have only so many spaces.

To get more students into the seats you’re occupying at this moment — and to get them out of college without their owing the gross domestic product of Paraguay — will require both better K-12 education, which is a subject for another speech (ask me back next year), as well as help for families facing soaring college costs.

On that score, let me offer one idea: Tuition at all public colleges, universities, and community colleges should be free.

Some of Lincoln’s public colleges, created especially to educate what their congressional sponsor called “the sons of toil,” were free initially. Experience confirms that free tuition boosts attendance.

Chicago has seen encouraging results from making its city community colleges free. Australia vastly increased college attendance with free tuition; graduates pay back the taxpayers once they’ve begun careers.

As for the up-front costs of free tuition, most or all of them could be covered with the money Uncle Sam currently spends on higher education: Pell grants for poor students, work-study subsidies, education-related tax breaks, all of it. Free tuition could replace these “scattershot attempts,” as one writer called them, while redirecting taxpayer support away from private universities that are most responsible for outsized student debt.

Free tuition would be a life-altering gift to our brothers and sisters. As you begin your adult lives, I leave you with a life lesson that’s one of the oldest, and one of the best: You are your brother’s and sister’s keepers.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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