In the United States, educating children has been treated as necessary, delivering a right and not bestowing a privilege. Therefore, tax dollars are committed to operating public schools through the twelfth grade. Higher education at the college and university level, though, has been treated more as a privilege. Tuition and fees must be paid; not everyone expects to go to college in the United States.
In ancient times, teachers gathered a group of students or disciples and instructed them beyond the elementary levels. Jesus Christ had disciples, but so did John the Baptist and the Pharisees. For that matter, the Buddha, Confucius, Plato, Aristotle, and many others gathered adults to teach them more than the basics they could learn from their parents or from the local teachers.
In the Middle Ages, medieval churches began to run universities, places where adults could gather to be instructed by experts in various topics. Such education was grounded in Christian theology, but it was sorted into the trivium of communication skills—grammar, logic, and rhetoric—and the quadrivium of scientific skills—arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The universities did not compete in football or basketball, but they did compete in theological and philosophic debate. The Reformation of the Church was sparked by this practice of scholarly debate.
Forty years after the United States Congress set aside land for public schools in each township, Congress voted to dedicate two townships in each territory and incipient state as “seminary lands.” (The terms “academy,” “college,” “seminary,” and “university” were often used interchangeably at that time—many such schools taught only at the high school level.) The major universities of various states evolved from that legislation. State governments later provided additional land for competing schools, which is why State universities also exist, as well as some with regional names such as “northern” and “eastern” colleges or universities. Students at these schools were expected to pay tuition and other fees, although scholarships were soon established to support deserving students who could not afford higher education.
After World War II, the federal government helped veterans to take part in higher education by the G.I. Bill. Soon, other programs were developed, including Pell Grants and guaranteed student loans. Unfortunately, every time the government provided financial assistance to help more students, colleges and universities absorbed the wealth by increasing costs, so that the price of higher education rose much faster than the rate of inflation. At the same time, many more careers required at least a college diploma and often an advanced degree as well. In the nineteenth century, many physicians and lawyers and other professionals were self-taught or were mentored by practicing professionals. This path to a career is almost impossible for most Americans today.
The rising cost of higher education, paired with the increasing necessity of college education for many careers, has required many students to borrow money, loans that must be repaid once they have graduated or left college. These loans often make it difficult for young adults to accomplish the steps expected from people of their age—to find homes of their own, to marry and begin a family, to contribute to churches and charities and to the alumni funds of their schools. Some economists worry that a massive default on student loans could damage the American and world economies even more than the Recession of 2007, which was caused by a similar collapse in the housing industry.
Some American politicians want to make college education free for all Americans. A few even want to pay off the loans accrued by recent college graduates. The first problem with this approach is the source of the money to cover these costs. The United States government has already added massively to its debt with stimulus checks to counter the economic costs of the virus crisis and its quarantines. The second problem is the risk that schools will increase their costs even more as more money becomes available to them through government programs. Costs spiraling upwards have been a problem for fifty years; increased funding will not end the spiral. The third problem is that students unprepared for college will be enrolled. Colleges already struggle to meet the needs of students whose twelve grades of public education did not give them skills needed to succeed in college. Paying for every high school graduate to attend college can only increase that problem.
The federal government should continue Pell Grants and other programs that assist competent students from poor families to receive higher education. At the same time, the government should reward institutions of higher education that cut costs rather than throwing money at all the colleges and universities. Schools that take deliberate steps to lower education costs should be first in line for government research grants and other programs that offer money to higher education. Likewise, students who go into debt preparing for careers that benefit the general population deserve more help reducing or eliminating their debt than their classmates. Health professionals—especially those who treat low-income patients—deserve debt reduction and elimination. So do teachers, social workers, and other professionals in lower-paying jobs that benefit the community. Some programs that meet this description already exist. They should be improved and also better focused.
A liberal arts higher education exposes students to many facets of life—the fine arts, history, science, foreign languages, and the like. These classes are required in high school, and that should continue. Colleges and universities also should continue to provide these classes for all students. But many high school graduates (and even those who do not finish high school) are qualified for vocations that are necessary for their communities and that can provide an income comparable to those available to college graduates. We need plumbers, electricians, carpenters, car repair experts, hair specialists, cooks, and bakers. More encouragement and support can be given to students preparing for these professions, rather than expecting every young American to enroll in college and have the government pay their bills.
If higher education were purely a privilege, then only wealthy students could go to college. Effort must continue to find ways of educating young men and women from poorer families who possess strong academic skills. The cost of higher education has been artificially raised in the United States over the past fifty years; this trend needs to be reversed rather than continued. Promising free college for all is the wrong answer. Better solutions are available. J.