Education beyond high school was once a luxury for children of wealthy families and for those targeting well-paying careers such as medicine and law. Increasingly, tertiary education (often, puzzlingly, described as “post-secondary education”) and training is essential for a large number of jobs. Yet the cost of tertiary education has grown much faster than the rate of inflation over the past four decades. Every time federal financial aid to college students has increased, colleges and universities have increased their prices to soak up the extra money that has been made available.
Offering free college education to all Americans and forgiving all unpaid student loans sounds like an attractive proposal to many young Americans. The problem with that solution is that nothing is truly free. “Free college” simply means “taking the cost of college education and dividing it among all taxpayers.” This places an undue burden on current taxpayers, and it will also burden those who receive a college education, enter the job field, and then have to support the education of other students.
The federal government should continue to provide help for college students (both incoming and continuing) who demonstrate both academic prowess and financial need. This help includes Pell Grants, guaranteed student loans, and other ways of supporting education costs of needy and capable students. In addition, the federal government should continue its program of reducing or eliminating student loan debt of workers who are contributing to the improvement of their communities and country while earning less than average wages—teachers, other community workers, medical workers providing help to low-income citizens, and the like.
At the same time, the federal government should reduce the cost of tertiary education by rewarding colleges and universities that lower costs to their students rather than constantly raising their costs. Government research grants and other gifts to institutions of higher education should be distributed with preference to those schools that are lowering the cost of education. When schools are no longer rewarded with more money every time they raise their costs, but instead are rewarded for lowering costs, the price of a college education will be made more affordable.
Meanwhile, the government should provide more support for vocational programs in high schools and community colleges. The nation needs carpenters, electricians, plumbers, auto repairers, and many other kinds of workers who do not require a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree to become adept at their job skills (and who will earn good salaries for their work). Too many programs support the traditional four-year program of tertiary education rather than helping low-income students with interest and skill in other vocations to learn a trade that will benefit them for a lifetime.
Tertiary education in the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral level will continue to be important. Teachers should be educated. Workers in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) usually need advanced degrees, as do those in the GLAM fields (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums). Medicine and law will also continue to need higher education for its workers. Instead of dividing the cost of higher education among all taxpayers, though, the federal government must continue to focus its assistance on the students of greatest need, greatest potential, and largest benefit to the nation as a whole. J.