1435 Morris Avenue - Suite 3A, Union, NJ 07083
Tim Haresign, President


Is free higher education a pipedream or a realizable goal?

In early February 2014, Tennessee’s Republican Governor Bill Haslam announced  in his State of the State address a plan to guarantee all high school graduates free tuition and fees at the state’s two year colleges or vocational schools.   Upon graduation, students who apply to a four year institution would be permitted to enroll as a junior.   

Haslam’s goal is to the increase the current graduation rate at the state’s institutions of higher education from 32 % to 55% and by proposing this plan, he has acknowledged that economics  is the primary factor that is preventing students who enter college from obtaining a degree.

This program is expected to cost $34 million annually.  Governor Haslam proposes to pay for it from the state’s reserve fund consisting of lottery revenue.  

Tennessee has six state universities, 13 community colleges and 27 colleges of “applied technology.”  

The closest New Jersey has ever come to providing free higher education in recent decades is the New Jersey Stars (Student Tuition Assistance Rewards Scholarship) program that allows high school students who graduate in the top 15% of their class to attend a county/community college tuition-free. The Georgia “Hope Scholarship” program provides free tuition at its four year state colleges for all students who maintain a “B” average.  In contrast, the Tennessee program is not based on academic performance.

North of the border, in Canada, tuition is heavily subsidized by the various provincial governments and is much more affordable than in the US , less than half of ours.

Free primary education was instituted before the Civil War.  Free secondary education became universal in the early 20th century.  Considering the vast social and economic changes our country has experienced in the past century, there can be no doubt that a college education today is as least as valuable as a high school education was a hundred years ago.  More and more jobs require a college degree and the earnings gap between those who have one and those who don’t is widening. Once, colleges were for the elite, but now it is considered an essential path to the middle class.

There are precedents. The post World War Two G.I. Bill provided free higher education to 8 million veterans after World War Two, mostly sons of the working class. It has been credited with raising the standard of living and quality of life for their families and descendants.

California’s system of public higher education was virtually free and considered the most successful in the nation until Ronald Reagan became governor in 1966. Until the 1976, City College of New York system provided a free college education to generations of immigrant and working class children who went on to excel in government, public education, journalism, literature and science.                

It is hard to argue against free or at least low cost public higher education from a policy standpoint. Economic success, social mobility and civic activism are all closely linked to a college education.  The higher earning capacity of college graduates benefits the economy as a whole through their increased labor productivity, spending and ability to pay taxes. On the other hand, poverty, apathy, crime, unemployment etc. are all more prevalent among the least educated Americans.  

Under the current system, far many more students begin college than complete it due to its high economic costs and those who do obtain degrees are likely to be burdened with debt from student loans that may adversely affect their finances for decades to come. 

In fact, the student debt crisis is now big news.  As well it should be. It tops $1 trillion, averaging $30,000 per student.  There is currently legislation in Congress to:

1) Restore bankruptcy protections to ALL student loans, both Federal and Private;

2) Restore the statute of limitations on the collections of student loan debt;

3) Prohibit automatic wage garnishment, attachment of Social Security Benefits or Tax Returns for defaulted borrowers;

4) Prohibit the suspension of professional licenses for defaulted borrowers;

5) Allow partial forgiveness of student loans after five years of public service;

6) Treat loan forgiveness under any repayment plan as non-taxable income; and

7) Allow people to use educational savings accounts to pay down student loan debt.

Naturally, we support this legislation, but it would not be necessary if tuition and fees were abolished.

What about the cost?   First it should be recognized that the state and the federal government already spend billions of dollars on various forms of financial aid, which could be redirected to direct funding of the public higher education sector.  In New Jersey student aid amounts to about 20% of the total spending on higher education.  Add the funds already spent on federal grants, state loans and the cost of related tax deductions and there may be already enough money in the state and federal systems to eliminate tuition and fees in public higher education.   

Second, Rome was not built in a day.  Reforms can be introduced in stages.  For example, here in New Jersey, the first step could be to expand upon the STARS program to allow all high school graduates to attend county/community colleges tuition-free and to return to the formula that existed in NJ before the 1990s in the four year and research institutions that required the State to cover two-thirds of the state college/university budgets with one third coming from tuition and fees.

Third, according to a new book Why Public Higher Education Should Be Free, written Robert Samuels, who just happens to be the president of an AFT affiliate in California that represents 3,000 lecturers and librarians in the University of California system, the resources to provide free public higher education can be found by re-ordering spending priorities away from administrative costs, managerial salaries and flashy building projects. In an interview in the August 18, 2013 Star Ledger, he stated, “”Education isn’t the focus of these institutions anymore…Schools can really control their spending if they focus on their core missions of undergraduate education and scientific research….Schools have to get back to the basics and make education their focus.  That’s a way they can also reduce costs.”

His findings are consistent with the Council’s official position that “eliminating duplication of functions and unnecessary bureaucracy that flow from institutional autonomy, limiting the ranks of top administrators and implementing more shared services….are all measures that can be effective in controlling tuition.”

In the event that increased revenues are required to realize the goal of free public higher education, look no further than our 2006 report, Flunking Out: New Jersey’s Support for Higher Education Falls Short.” It recommended a combination of a revenue source dedicated to public higher education and modest increases in the corporate business tax, the gross income tax and the sales tax.            

On the national level, tuition costs for public institutions of higher education account for a sum equivalent to under 2 % of the federal budget.  If the government can bail out banks, provide tax breaks to large corporations and spend billions on the military, it is not a matter of money.  A minute tax on stock transactions could raise $352 billion over ten years. Even if the money is not there, government borrowing to provide free higher education for high school graduates would pay for itself down the road just like the G.I. Bill did, in increased labor productivity, services and tax revenue.    

The labor movement has always been an advocate of social justice.   Free access to public higher college education should be considered just as much a “right” as a living wage, collective bargaining, health care and retirement security.

Like Tennessee, we have a Republican governor. Can Governor Chris Christie be convinced to give Governor Bill Haslam a call?