Uncle Sam has put thousands of veterans through college. Why it makes sense to do the same for everyone else.
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Like thousands of GIs before me who somehow survived military service with their lives more or less intact, I re-entered civilian life in the fall of 1974 certain of one thing: I was going to get a free ride through college.
Whether the three years, nine months, and six days I had surrendered to the Pentagon was worth the four years of college that followed is an equation I may never quite work out, but for a working-class kid ignorant of Pell Grants and lacking the academic credentials for scholarships, nothing else made much sense. If I was going to go to college, I'd have to let my Uncle Sam pay for it.
Today, with a very ambitious teenage daughter and an 11-year-old son who reminds me way too much of myself, the question of college is looming ever larger. The funding options, however, seem to be shrinking. Financial assistance is in the midst of a long and steady decline, and the competition for academic scholarships is fierce, all at a time when tuition costs are skyrocketing. There's no free ride from the Pentagon anymore, either; the military will match whatever a GI can put away toward college, but how much of a soldier's paltry salary will be left at the end of the month to put into a savings account?
To hear Adolph Reed Jr. tell it, the answer is a GI Bill for everybody, a free college education for anyone who meets the academic requirement for enrollment. Writing in the venerable left quarterly Dissent (Fall 2001), Reed argues that rising tuition costs (a 170 percent increase since 1970, even adjusted for inflation) and dwindling financial options (federal grants covered less than 12 percent of total tuition and fees in 1996, down from 23 percent in 1980) have filtered out thousands of students who can't afford the debt payments after graduation or simply can't qualify for student loans.
“This state of affairs is inimical to a decent and just society,” Reed writes. “It imposes unacceptable, though typically unacknowledged, human costs in terms of social waste and unfulfilled potential, and it perverts the values of higher education.”
Free college tuition, a common social benefit in other nations, could provide a head start for an entire generation of young people, regardless of class, Reed argues. And it could be done in a cost-effective manner.
He estimates that such a program might cost the government upwards of $46 billion a year, an amount he says could easily be found in a budget based on more equitable tax policies. Closing corporate tax loopholes created since 1990, for instance, would generate some $60 billion in annual revenues, more than enough to put everyone through school.
Such a plan would certainly encounter heavy resistance from conservatives, Reed admits, but there is ample evidence that those dollars would be well spent. Reed points to a 1988 report by a congressional subcommittee on education and health that estimated that each dollar spent through the GI Bill for postsecondary education produced a return in additional tax revenues of $6.90.
And any attempt by the right to characterize this as a giveaway program for upper-middle-class kids is off base. “This is an issue that has resonance throughout the population,” Reed writes. “The 'Joe Sixpack' imagery that drives so much disingenuous right-wing populism is simply bogus. Interest in educating oneself and one's children—for both instrumental reasons related to employment and non-instrumental reasons related to intellectual curiosity and self-fulfillment—is not by any means the exclusive property of the upper middle class.”
Indeed, this is an issue around which the left could mount an effective political campaign, Reed notes. Polls taken during the 2000 presidential campaign revealed that education ranked high among voter concerns. And though much of that concern has centered on the quality of primary and secondary schools in America, a postsecondary education increasingly is a necessary prerequisite for even a relatively secure, decent-paying job. By taking up the fight for government-funded college education for everyone, the left would be pushing a campaign that would cut across the lines of race, gender, age, and geography, he argues.
“This could be the beginning of a significant popular movement—on the order of earlier agitation for black Americans' civil rights, for the eight-hour day, or for old-age assistance—that helps to redefine the terms of national political debate.”