Should Public Higher Education Be Free?

November 16, 2019 0 By Ronny Jaskolski

JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to The Real News Network.
I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. College students across the country continue
to face escalating tuition costs and skyrocketing debt. Meanwhile, some have opposed free higher
education to help combat this. Now joining us to discuss this is Bob Samuels.
He’s the president of the UC-AFT, the union representing 4,000 librarians and lecturers
in the University of California public university system. He teaches writing at the University
of California, Santa Barbara. Author of seven books, including Why Public Higher Education
Should Be Free. Thank you so much for joining us. ROBERT SAMUELS: Thank you. NOOR: So let’s start off by getting your take
about why tuition costs are escalating so much. And that’s resulted in students straddled
with an enormous amount of debt. I think a recent estimate put it at above $1 trillion
across the country. SAMUELS: Well, there are several factors.
One is that states have been cutting their funding for higher education institutions.
And also higher education institutions have taken on many different functions. They have
medical schools. They run hospitals. They run athletic departments. And so there’s many
contributing factors to the situation. It’s also whenever the state cuts the budget
for the universities, the universities know that they can turn around and raise the tuition
on the students. And one reason why they know that is because they know the students can
take out loans or get other forms of financial aid. NOOR: And so in your book, you kind of note
this number, going back to the fact that universities do a lot more stuff than just education: you
write that as little as 10 percent of university budgets are spent on directly educating students.
Most people would be shocked to hear that, especially in the face of these rising tuition
costs. Can you talk a little bit more about this? SAMUELS: Well, I’m talking about research
universities there, and research universities perform many different functions. They have
graduate education. They have law schools, medical schools, professional education. They
have gigantic research facilities. They have large athletic programs and departments. They
have many different services they offer students and the local community. And so one of the things that I try to show
is that as universities have expanded, they’ve taken on more and more functions, which creates
a need for more and more administration, more and more staff. And it just kind of spirals
out of control. NOOR: And so, to address this issue you argue
for free higher public education for all high school graduates. Explain how you would accomplish
this and what impact it would make on America. SAMUELS: Well, there’s a few different aspects
to my proposal. One is I point out that we’re already spending enough money to make it free.
I’m not advocating raising taxes or having the government spend much more money on higher
education. I’m saying instead of spending a lot of money on for-profit colleges that
have very few graduates, and instead of giving tax breaks to the super-wealthy that go to
higher education, we should basically fund directly universities and colleges, public
institutions, and then require that they spend a certain amount of that money on direct instructional
costs. And so instead of just giving a blank check to the universities and colleges, the
federal government should make certain requirements, for instance that only a certain number of
classes should be large classes. They should control, like, how many of the faculty are
full-time faculty. And they should basically have a minimum requirement of the university
spending at least 50 percent of their state and federal funding on direct instructional
costs. And this would allow students to graduate
faster because there would be more classes. It would make education more effective because
there would be smaller classes. And the universities have the resources to
do this. Just currently they’re spending money on other things. NOOR: And so if you did expand public education,
made it free, obviously a lot more people would want to go to college. How would you
deal with that? Would you, for example, make more universities? Or would you have a merit-based
system to get into college? SAMUELS: I think we would still have competitive
enrollment. I think we would be able to graduate and educate many more students at the same
cost, because right now the current overall graduation rate for community colleges and
public universities is something like 40 percent. So if we could raise that to 60, 70, 80 percent,
then we could actually just use the current facilities and the current resources, just
in a more efficient manner, because one reason why students don’t graduate or don’t graduate
on time is because they go into debt and they have to drop out, or they’re spending a lot
of time while they’re in school working in order to pay for the high cost of tuition
and related expenses. NOOR: And so how would you respond to arguments
that, you know, people might make? For example, if you don’t have kids, then you’re subsidizing
the education of people that aren’t really going to benefit you in any way. SAMUELS: Well, I’m not talking about raising
the taxes on anyone. I’m talking about changing some of the tax breaks, some of the tax deductions
that go to people who send their kids to college. What a lot of people don’t know is that there’s
a bunch of different tax breaks that have been used primarily by the super-wealthy as
tax shelters. And there’s something called a 529 college plan, and those ones are really
a way of the wealthy to shelter their investment revenue from taxes. And so I’m not asking people to make an increased
sacrifice. It’s very hard for people to accept this. I’m saying, let’s just use the money
we currently have in a more efficient manner. NOOR: And, you know, there have been protests
all over the country. I reported on some of that in New York, and now in California it’s
been widespread. What’s it going to take for this system to change to make this–for example,
to adapt a policy like you are proposing? SAMUELS: Well, I think we have to work with
different groups–student groups, parent groups, teacher unions, a wide range of groups–and
really have a social movement about this. But the reason why I think it’s going to happen
is because the student debt problem is so bad. It’s not only that there’s $1 trillion
of outstanding student loan debt, but a lot of times these students, when they go to look
for a job, they can’t get a job, because they have a bad credit rating because of their
defaulted loans or delayed payments on loans. And once the students graduate, they often
graduate with–the average is $26,000 of debt. But once they start missing payments, that
can quickly go up to $50,000, $60,000. And so we’re going to have a gigantic crisis.
We’ll have a generation of students graduating–or not graduating–with tremendous levels of
debt and who are going to be unable to get jobs. NOOR: And lastly, people might be surprised
to know that America’s one of the few industrial countries that doesn’t already offer free
higher public education. Talk about a model that works around the world. SAMUELS: Well, I mean, we have models throughout
Europe. We used to have in many states free public higher education, or close to free.
In California we didn’t charge tuition until relatively recently. And the same problem
existed with high school. We used to have very few people in high school, and then we
made high school a public institution. And Finland’s been a very successful system where
they have free public higher education, throughout Scandinavia, throughout most of Europe, and
through certain Asian and South American countries. So there’s a lot of countries that do this,
and it makes sense for them economically and socially to have more prepared people in their
economy. NOOR: Bob Samuels, this wraps up the first
part of our conversation. Thank you so much for joining us. SAMUELS: Thank you. NOOR: We’re going to continue this conversation
in part two. You can check it out at Thank you so much for joining us.