Snyder: Why free tuition is a necessity

Stephen Snyder

The impending 2016 presidential election portrays that several social and economic issues will come to a front as candidates vie for position. Those issues include immigration, health care, foreign policy as it relates to military force and most importantly for a majority of people reading this column, free college tuition for public universities and the reduction of student debt. Columnist Beth Woodruff asserted her belief Thursday that free tuition is an unattainable goal for the United States and an unrealistic expectation for our nation’s youth. In short, I disagree.

Education is the single best way to increase the well-being of an individual and indeed a society as whole, so why are we making a college education an increasingly economically unattainable concept? Instead of helping our young people assimilate into the working world, our system crushes them under the cost of their education.

Subsidized higher education is actually well within our grasp (as exemplified by economically successful and widely educated European nations) and it is perhaps the most important economic change our nation can make to create positive change not only in our job market and economy, but also the most efficient means of solving a number of the United States’ societal ills including poverty, government dependence and crime rates.

Woodruff suggests that the government cannot reduce the cost of higher education because of the astronomical national debt weighing down our nation. However, this is not a question of the government sinking further into debt because the money can be freed up by reallocation of government funds or, as Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders suggests, by placing a “speculation tax” on Wall Street and asking the industries the government bailed out during the recession to start paying up on the investment.

Another strategy I mentioned is a mere reallocation of government funds. This could perhaps come from a slight decrease in military spending, an area in which we are all aware the United States dwarfs all other nations. Is it really such a ridiculous request that we take a little money away from the force we often use to fight other societies, so we may invest in building up our own?

A second area from which the government may reallocate funds is the prison industry. President Barack Obama hypothesized that by correcting a broken justice system that has caused a massive rise in U.S. prison populations, we may be able to spend less on prisons. By reforming laws that put millions of low-level offenders in prison for decades, we can lessen the need for the $80 billion we currently spend on prisons and incarceration. I would explain his plan, but Obama said it best himself while speaking at an NAACP conference earlier in 2015.

“For what the U.S spends on keeping people in prison per year, $80 billion, there could be universal pre-school, doubled salaries for high school teachers or free tuition at U.S public colleges or universities,” Obama said.

Woodruff also postulated that paying loans in school can be a positive experience for students and indeed a formative lesson for Americans emerging into the job market. In a society where the cost of higher education is quickly outweighing its intended benefits, this is a dangerous point of view. Woodruff cites a USA Today study, which found that more than half of students are unemployed after their first six months in the “real world,” and uses this statistic to highlight the importance of the ability to manage a budget. I see the statistic in a different light.

To me it says a college degree no longer carries the weight in the job market that it once did. And while those students spend those six months budgeting and scraping by, the bill collectors are coming. However, these recent graduates have nothing to give them (unemployed as they are), and their degrees seem to be worth more as kindling than evidence of education. All the while, more debt is incurred.

This is no longer a question of “can we?” It should be a demand of “we must” from the American populous — its youth, specifically — when it comes to increasing the economic viability of a college education.

In the United States, banks get bailouts, insurance companies get bailouts, the auto industry gets a bailout but the common person, the student aspiring to become a contributing member of a strong middle class (the driving force of a consumer-based economy such as our own) is left to fend for themselves.

An investment in education is an investment in the future of our nation. Education lifts people from poverty, increases societal involvement and provides an entirely different view of our world and the way it works.

The current system doesn’t work (or will not work very much longer) and it’s fine to admit that. The only wrong move is to do nothing to change the situation and allow the student debt crisis to exacerbate itself to the point of widespread financial hardship for the newest generation of working Americans. There is nothing formative or glamorous about living in debt. There is only hardship. And if that hardship can be avoided, our government would be doing us all a disservice by not making every effort to correct the issue.