WHAT if education were available without tuition charges to every resident meeting admissions criteria, as a right, at any public, post secondary educational institution in the United States? Is this idea feasible? Is there potential public support for it? What would be its likely effects if implemented? What would such a commitment cost? How could those costs be met? These questions are not on the radar screen of American public discourse today. In fact, they are virtually unthinkable in the current consensus that sets the boundaries of acceptable policy debate.
Yet paying for higher education is a major concern for most Americans. In 2000, polls indicated that respondents included education, along with the economy, as one of the two highest priority issues in choosing a presidential candidate. Although much of this expressed concern is centered on the quality of pre collegiate schooling, Americans are also worried about access to post secondary education. Legitimately so, for post secondary education is increasingly a prerequisite for effective labor force participation, for any hope of a relatively secure, decent job. If that is the case, shouldn’t society have an obligation to provide universal access to such an essential social good? Why should we accept a putative consensus that preempts consideration of an issue so important to so many Americans?
Universal access to higher education is not entirely unprecedented in recent American history. The most dramatic approximation to it was the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, popularly known as the GI Bill, under which a generation of Second World War veterans received what was usually full tuition support and stipends (up to nearly $12,000 per year in 1994 dollars) to attend post secondary educational institutions. By 1952, the federal government had spent $7 billion (nearly $39 billion in 1994 dollars) on sending veterans to college. This amounted to 1.3 percent of total federal expenditures ($521.8 billion) during that period. A 1988 report by a congressional subcommittee on education and health estimated that 40 percent of those who attended college under the GI Bill would not otherwise have done so. The report also found that each dollar spent educating that 40 percent produced a $6.90 return (more than $267 billion in 1994 dollars) in national output due to extra education and increased federal tax revenues from the extra income the beneficiaries earned.
The dynamics set in motion by the GI Bill had broad, positive ramifications for the country as a whole, extending far beyond the direct beneficiaries. Not only did the latter benefit from increased income, occupational and employment opportunities, and personal growth and enrichment; these benefits extended intergenerationally, making for greater opportunities for their children and families, which contributed to a general expansion in college enrollments through the 1970s, far outstripping population growth...
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