Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Why The Feds Should Pay For College

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

Graduates at Indiana University's winter commencement ceremonies at Assembly Hall in Bloomington.

You read that right. All college tuition at all public institutions — send the bill to Uncle Sam.

“It might be more doable than you think,” writes The Atlantic’s Jordan Weissman:

With what the federal government spent on its various and sundry student aid initiatives last year, it could have covered the tuition bill of every student at every public college in the country. Doing so might have required cutting off financial aid at Yale, Amherst, the University of Phoenix, and every other private university. But at this point, that might be a trade worth considering...

Between graduate students and undergrads at both four-year and community colleges, students paid just under $60 billion in tuition to attend state institutions of higher learning in fiscal year 2012…

Now how much does Washington spend on aid? According to the New America Foundation, Washington appropriated some $77 billion worth of it in 2012 via a giant salad of tax breaks and grants… The money we’d need for this grand experiment is already there.

Before we get too carried away, consider Weissman’s caveats:

Colleges already get a lot of that $77 billion pie, for starters. Cutting off aid to private colleges would mean “fewer poor and lower-middle class kids would attend the Harvards and Stanfords of the world.” Government “meddling” could lead to some perverse incentives for or “stagnation” at public colleges themselves. And then there’s this:

In 2009, families and students claimed $15 billion worth of tax breaks for tuition. About 26 percent of that money went to families earning $100,000 to $180,000 a year. Those deductions would be off the table.

This is “perhaps the worst higher education idea ever,” tweets Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute:

But, Sarah Goldrick-Rab blogs, Weissman’s idea highlights fundamental problems with American higher education:

If we really wanted to make college affordable, we would direct all dollars towards providing one good affordable option for everyone.  We would focus less on choice and more on access to a real outcome- a degree. We wouldn’t let aid flow to private or for-profit schools, and by funding public institutions we’d hold them accountable for keeping costs low and campus-climates reasonable so that everyone can fully participate in the experiences.

What do you think of Weissman’s idea? Too good to be true? Based on false assumptions? Or something we should consider more seriously?

Have a good weekend, everyone.


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