WASHINGTON -- State universities and community colleges should offer free tuition to all students who academically qualify for admission.
Our current, insufficient, inefficient patchwork of college aid relies increasingly on loans that saddle graduates with too much debt and too few options once they enter the workforce.
Tuition-free and loan-free college education would not only give a vital boost to aspiring students of modest and middle means, but make sure we don't cheat our society of its next great leader because she or he faced a purely economic bar to college admission.
Recognizing a democracy's basic need for an educated citizenry, our nation has tried through most of its history to make college more accessible and affordable.
We've enacted laws ranging from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and Morrill Act of 1862, which helped create the relatively low-cost state college system; to the post-World War II GI Bill and Higher Education Act of 1965, which gave direct aid to students. As a result, ours was the first society in human history with a broad participation in higher education.
That policy of widening college access was abandoned beginning in the 1970s. Spurred on by faulty theories on how best to aid low-income students and by state governments' budget crises -- which were fueled in part by profligate tax-cutting -- state colleges began to receive less public funding and in turn demand more from students and their families in the form of tuition and fees. Meanwhile, direct aid -- such as Pell Grants -- began to shrink and student debt to grow.
The results have been predictably bad. Collective student debt now tops $1 trillion, greater than all credit card debt combined. More and more promising students are making the economic calculation that college just isn't worth the price.
Luckily, some far-seeing reformers have set out to change that troubling calculation. The Oregon legislature recently created a commission to consider a plan -- "Pay It Forward, Pay It Back" -- that would finance tuition-free attendance at the state's four-year and community colleges via a 3 percent surtax on the income of graduates, a system that already works well in Australia and the United Kingdom.
Robert Samuels, president of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers, proposed in a recent academic journal that all college education could be made tuition-free and loan-free simply by using more efficiently the public resources already dedicated to higher education.
He calculated that it would cost the government a hefty $130 billion a year to directly pay the tuition of the approximately 6.5 million undergraduates in public four-year colleges and 4.3 million in community colleges. But that's what Washington and the states already spend on higher education, if you add together the cost of Pell Grants, loan guarantees and state assistance.
Public college aid is currently misallocated. Federal and state tax credits and deductions for individual students to attend higher education cost public treasuries about $70 billion between 1999-2009.
While such tax incentives are a boon to wealthier families who can pay their own way, they do little to assist lower-income and middle-income households, who must rely on loans and are saddled with ever increasing student debt.
States also lose money on college-savings plans, which the wealthy can use as tax shelters, but which again do little to help poorer students and their families.
As Samuels points out, replacing the current potpourri of institutional aid, tax subsidies, and student grants and loans with direct public payment of tuition would in the long run save money.
More important, free higher education would restore our nation's vaunted but now mostly absent social mobility, create a more capable workforce, better prepare Americans for the duties of citizenship -- and make sure that smart, ambitious young Americans from any side of town can fulfill their dreams.
Don Kusler, executive director of Americans for Democratic Action, can be reached at ADA, 1625 K Street NW, Suite 102, Washington, D.C. 20006.