Higher Education For All

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Jim Hightower’s newest book,Let’s Stop Beating Around The Bush, is scheduled for release this month. Utne.com is running a series of excerpts from the title.

Given what you’ve seen in recent times, I know you’re not going to believe this, but here it is: Once upon a time, Congress occasionally did the right thing, in the right way.

Ludicrous! you shout. Tell me that pigs fly, that the sun will rise in the west tomorrow, that Britney Spears is a serious musical talent — but tell me no fables about that gang of thieves under the Capitol dome.

It’s true. As evidence, I point you to the Congress of 1944, which passed what became known as the GI Bill. It opened up higher education, previously the exclusive enclave of elites, to masses of Americans. Admittedly, Congress’s motive was not altruism — but panic. Some 14 million soldiers were about to return from World War II and there simply were no jobs for them. It could be quite explosive to have millions of mostly young and largely unskilled men milling around, most of whom had ambition and many of whom were coming home with lots of experience in how to use guns.

Better to channel this mass of energy, aspiration, and testosterone into…what? The answer was college, trade schools, and training programs. The GI Bill allowed veterans who could meet the academic qualifications to go to the school of their choice for up to four years — FREE! They received grants of up to $500, which in that day would cover all tuition, books, fees, etc. Plus, they got living stipends of up to $50 a month.

It was a major public investment in ordinary people — not a trickle-down approach, but percolate-up — and it worked.

More than seven million vets were trained during the 12-year life of the GI Bill:

  • 2.2 million went to college
  • 3.5 million went to trade and technical schools
  • 1.4 million got on-the-job training
  • 700,000 got farm training

The total cost was $14.5 billion — $1,860 per vet. There was a huge payoff for our nation from this investment — a 1988 congressional study of one group educated under the GI Bill found that every dollar invested produced a $7 increase in our nation’s output. Also, as happens after a good, soaking two-inch spring rain, many flowers bloomed across our country as a result of this showering of public funds on America’s grassroots:

  • The growth that the GI Bill stimulated in higher-educational enrollment fueled a broad expansion of colleges, trade schools, and other institutions, with many new institutions and campuses reaching for the first time into inner-city and rural communities, putting advanced education within physical and economic reach of people who otherwise might not have had the opportunity, or even considered the possibility of more schooling.
  • The boom in enrollment also meant a boom in construction jobs, and new educational facilities created other jobs — from teachers to janitors, administrators to cafeteria workers.
  • The college and university experience was dramatically democratized, broadened, and deepened as students from working-class and farm backgrounds were afforded the chance to go in large numbers to what had been havens for the elite.

Here’s a big idea for today’s political consideration: Let’s do that again. Let’s revisit the concept of the GI Bill, but expand it to every American. Anyone who can meet the academic qualifications should have their tuition, fees, and other educational expenses covered, plus a reasonable living stipend, for education and training beyond high school. Yes, free education for all.


At a time when the very concept of the “public good” is being bashed and dashed, what a joy it is to get a bit of good news from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Officials at at the University of North Carolina have taken a stand to make a university education more universal for the people of the state — particularly for students from families of the working poor. In a first for public universities, UNC announced last year that it will cover these students’ full cost, including room and board, of attending the university — a total of about $13,000 a year for each student. In turn, the students will work on campus 10 to 12 hours a week.

“College should be possible for everyone who can make the grade, regardless of ‘family income,'” says the UNC chancellor. Yet, surveys show that the rapidly rising cost of attending college (up 200 percent in the past 20 years), and the fear of having to amass too much of a debt load on them and their families, is now preventing about half of our country’s academically-qualified low-income students from attending.

So, UNC has made an important and bold decision not to abandon those who are being priced out. The chancellor says simply that this policy is “an expression of our values at this university.”

The Powers That Be constantly scold us about the importance of education, repeatedly pointing out that the key to personal advancement and to the advancement of our country in today’s global “knowledge economy” is advanced education. High school no longer cuts it, we’re told — you must get higher skills and knowledge for the 21st century.

Yet, increasingly, not only are poor folks priced out of this opportunity, but so is the middle class. College has become a sinkhole of debt for those who can borrow to go (U.S. PIRG finds that two-thirds of college students now graduate with loan debts averaging $17,000), and those with no capacity to borrow are simply locked out.

As with the GI Bill, our modern-day initiative should not be limited to the pursuit of university degrees. “Higher” education means just that — higher than high school. Advanced educational opportunities ought to be as populist as possible, letting people themselves choose what works for them. Whether the end result is a lab coat or a chef’s toque, whether you learn website design in a community college or auto design in a technical institute, whether you study nursing or woodworking, whether you’re granted a BA in accounting or earn certification as a master organic farmer — our society benefits, for you have more knowledge than before and more potential to contribute to the common good.

Free higher education also is a natural fit for our new global order, a fast-spinning world in which employees can forget about such old-fashioned niceties as corporate loyalty and job security, no matter how much of yourself you’ve dedicated to the company. Washington and Wall Street tell us that we must expect to get dumped frequently and scramble for new work, usually requiring higher skills.

Okay, so in a wealthy nation like ours, which has become the world model for this new chaotic economy, let’s lead the way in providing secure footing for our people by making sure that an infrastructure of free education and training is always in place. If this is the way the new world is going to be, let’s adjust for that world. To do less would be a damnable failure of leadership.

The naysayers will shriek: “Where are you going to get the money for such a massive public investment?” Get it from where it went. The total cost of the GI Bill was about $80 billion in today’s money. Washington has already frittered away $95 billion on the Star Wars boondoggle and plans to spend hundreds of billions more. On national-security grounds alone, education for all beats the bejeezus out of this silly system.

If we’re going to be stingy, let’s get downright miserly about doling out more multibillion-dollar military contracts to Halliburton, giving a $257 million tax rebate to Enron, and generally shoveling our hard-earned dollars into corporate coffers.

It’s a matter of what We the People want to do. As we learned after September 11, the money can be found to do whatever needs to be done — and even for what doesn’t need to be done.

But the bottom line on higher education for all is more than economic, for it represents a truly populist vision that embraces the democratic aspirations of America’s workaday majority. It empowers people directly, letting them decide when, where, and what advanced education they’ll get. It abandons the elitist notion that higher education is reserved for the top tier and respects the dignity of all kinds of educational pursuits.

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