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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. Enrollments increased by nearly 21 percent between 1950-1960 and nearly 167 percent between 1960-1970. In 1950, for example, 1.7 percent of the total U.S. population were enrolled in colleges and universities; by 1975, the figure had risen steadily to 5.2 percent. This growth also fueled a dramatic expansion of colleges and universities. Bulging enrollments led to substantial enlargement of physical plant and capacities at existing institutions. Increased demand for higher education also prompted creation of new institutions, many of them public campuses in urban and under-served rural areas that brought higher education physically within reach of new segments of society. The Bureau of the Census counted 1,708 institutions of higher education in 1940 and 1,959 in 1960; by 1981, the number had risen to more than 3,200. All this expansion in turn stimulated construction and other employment opportunities, ranging from faculties and staff to support services and the commercial sector. It also dramatically democratized college and university life and broadened and deepened the intellectual life of campuses and academic disciplines. Michael J. Bennett writes movingly of the GI Bill's democratizing cultural and intellectual effects in When Dreams Came True: The GI Bill and the Making of Modern America.
Of course, factors other than public tuition support contributed significantly to the postwar explosion in higher education. Among them were the general economic prosperity of the period; the rising wages, benefits, and job security available to many unionized workers as part of the Fordist capital/labor accord that prevailed at least in the industrial sector through the 1960s; and the perceived need to invest in education sparked by the Soviet Union's launching of Sputnik in 1957. After 1965, the Vietnam War no doubt also contributed to increased college attendance, insofar as student deferments from conscription made enrollment more attractive to draft-age males.
And the expansion, particularly in cities, was often a mixed blessing. To the extent that new construction for higher education was linked to urban renewal schemes, it frequently came with the unacknowledged cost of destroying inner-city neighborhoods. Any overall cost-benefit analysis would have to account for the social losses of such dislocation, which included seriously disrupting the lives of people already precariously situated financially, severing ties to place and social networks, intensifying pressures on affordable housing, and exacerbating racial inequalities. (As Martin Anderson noted in The Federal Bulldozer, more than two-thirds of those displaced nationally for urban renewal site clearance and construction through the early 1960s were black or Puerto Rican.) Nevertheless, expanded access to higher education almost certainly has had substantially democratizing effects in the general population and in the long-term, even among the racial groups whose stigmatized status and segregated living arrangements made many of them particularly vulnerable to victimization by the redevelopment juggernaut.
The history of the City University of New York provides a local, but instructive illustration of the general social benefits that result from removing financial constraint from access to higher education. The free tuition policy in effect in the CUNY system until the 1970s also brought higher education within reach for tens of thousands of people for whom it would otherwise have been no more than an unrealizable dream. In addition to the impressively lengthy roster of prominent public officials, academics, and others who took advantage of that access, exponentially more people were able to translate it into more secure and rewarding jobs than would otherwise have been attainable.
Similarly, many states responded to increased demand for higher education by expanding and rationalizing public systems to facilitate access, often by enlarging and integrating community college, regional, and state university tiers in ways that enabled students to move fluidly from one level to another as their accomplishment and interests warranted. For decades, the California system was a model of this kind of egalitarian access and fluidity. The aftermath of Proposition 13 (the 1978 California ballot initiative that radically cut property taxes and imposed draconian restrictions on subsequent increases) and the constrained revenue base resulting from tax revolt politics has reduced this mobility within the California system since the early 1980s. However, graduate admission records underscore its persistence: applicants from California still commonly display transcripts that mark the journey from community to state college and then to the university system.
Beginning in the 1970s and accelerating during the 1980s, costs of attending colleges and universities rose nationally, and sources of federal grant-in-aid support decreased relative to need. Aggregate tuition and fees at all kinds of institutions of higher education (private and public) rose from slightly more than $5 billion in 1970 to more than $55 billion in 1996. When adjusted for inflation, this amounts to a 170 percent increase, which was nearly two and a half times greater than the rate of growth in aggregate enrollments over that period (while real wages remained flat, or even declined, during that time). Meanwhile, in 1970 federal grants covered only 2.7 percent of total tuition and fees, but that was at a point when such costs, especially for in-state students at public institutions, were generally low and more easily manageable. By 1980, increasing concerns about rising costs had prompted increased government aid-covering more than 23 percent of tuition and fees nationally, though this increase hardly kept pace with increased costs. By 1996, such grants had declined and covered less than 12 percent of total tuition and fees. This retrenchment was partly the result of intentional rightist strategies to rein in what was perceived as a source of "adversarial culture" in universities and an expression of the corporate-led attack on social wage benefits of all sorts that might weaken labor discipline.
Increasingly, college attendance for all except the wealthy has become contingent on qualification for interest-carrying student loans. This filters out many potential students who either cannot afford the encumbrance of loan indebtedness or cannot qualify for loans. More students are prevented from completing degree programs because they exhaust the sums for which they qualify before satisfying the requirements. Still more take much longer to complete their courses of study than they otherwise would because they have to take off time to work. Still more are pressured by their debt burdens to pursue courses of study, or even subsequent lines of employment, outside their interests in hopes of earning enough to pay off their loans.
This state of affairs is inimical to a decent and just society. It imposes unacceptable, though typically unacknowledged, human costs in terms of social waste and unfulfilled potential, and it perverts the values of higher education. Moreover, it is unnecessary. A 1999 report from the US Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics indicates that in 1996 tuition and fee revenues at all two-year and four-year degree-awarding public educational institutions totaled just over $23 billion. This is a relatively small sum, equivalent to roughly 2 percent of current federal budgets. Even if increased access were to double the number of students attending colleges and universities and double the annual tuition demand to $46 billion, that would still be a sum easily absorbed within current budgets. Even potential increases in other forms of federal aid to students, such as Pell Grants for non-tuition expenses, would not prohibitively increase the total cost. The expenditure commitments could be absorbed easily by restoring minimal tax justice; for instance, simply closing corporate tax shelter loopholes introduced since 1990 would generate an estimated $60 billion annually.
One of the most regrettable and self-defeating developments within progressive policy circles during the last two decades has been an atrophy of practical, programmatic vision. This is especially true with respect to those policy areas that lie in the domain of social wage provision-for example, health care, education, affordable housing, income support, old-age security, civil rights, and labor rights. This has been one of Reaganism's subtler, but more far-reaching victories. By seizing the political initiative and setting the terms of public debate, the right has so demoralized us and put us so completely on the defensive politically that we often seem capable of struggling only to minimize losses or, at best, to press for minimally incremental, often concessionary reforms. The result is that we have been unable effectively to counter the right wing's fundamental proposition that government has little or no responsibility for securing the general welfare and providing access to opportunities for the enhancement of the lives of the general population. We seem to have lost the ability or the will to articulate policies for making the society as just and democratic as it should be; instead, we have become increasingly focused on trying to secure what we think might actually be attainable within a policy universe dominated by the right's denial of the efficacy of public action.
This failure of progressive policy vision is understandable. Activist and advocacy groups that have faced the brunt of the endlessly escalating right-wing assault are necessarily forced into a defensive mode as their often already precariously situated constituencies have been its prime targets. However, the only way to turn the tide of the right's war against the social gains won in the middle half of the twentieth century is to present clearly-and generate public discussion around-an affirmative policy agenda that addresses people's most basic concerns and is a practical expression of a different view of public responsibility and governmental capacity. We need to shift the terms of public debate, to break the stranglehold of Margaret Thatcher's right-wing mantra that the late Daniel Singer summed up pithily as TINA-There Is No Alternative-to the unrestrained action of market forces. This task does not contradict or override the more immediate struggles to preserve past gains that have been under concerted attack, such as commitments to racial and gender justice, social security for the elderly, and governmental provision of quality public services. Indeed, it is a necessary complement to them. The only way to preserve those gains is to challenge the arguments used in attacking them.
We need a clear voice that seeks to shift the terms of public debate by reasserting the principles of social solidarity and public responsibility that have become increasingly marginalized during the past two decades. This means focusing on objectives that speak to people's immediate, everyday concerns-even if these lie beyond today's political horizon and cannot reasonably be expected to bear fruit within less than several election cycles. Objectives such as universal health care and universal access to higher education are practically realizable if political will can be generated to implement them. How can we generate that will? We have to open a broad policy discussion that begins with the question, What would American public policy look like and how would our institutions operate if their first priority were to meet the most important concerns of the vast majority of the population?
This majority is not currently included among those that define the parameters of policy debate; they have not participated in calculating the supposed limits of feasibility and practicality that narrow the political horizon. Yet, as Michael Zweig has argued persuasively in The Working Class Majority: America's Best Kept Secret, they are the American demos, the democratic base. The left's most vital task, therefore, is to encourage a truly popular discussion about national priorities and the means to fulfill them. Not only do poll data indicate that education is already a broadly shared concern; in our own lives and in our interactions with others, we all recognize the strain that paying for higher education imposes throughout the population. So it makes sense to argue that significant potential exists for building grassroots support for realistic strategies that would make access to higher education available to all Americans, so far as interest and ability can take them.
In the comparably critical area of health care, the Maine legislature's passage of a single-payer bill, signed into law by the governor, is the most dramatic recent indication of openness within the public to policy strategies that break sharply with neoliberal orthodoxy. In last year's elections, single-payer ballot initiatives won by at least 60 percent majorities in non-binding referenda in six legislative districts across Massachusetts and in Alachua County, Florida (where the initiative received more votes than any presidential candidate). These are admittedly modest victories, but they at least reinforce a suspicion that popular sentiment can be cultivated in support of policies that address broadly shared needs in just and egalitarian ways, without subordinating them to market theology. The key ingredient missing from left politics at this juncture in the United States is a concerted strategy for building popular constituencies to pursue objectives that resonate with people's concerns and harnessing those objectives to a social vision that lies outside the limits defined by current elite consensus.
That is in large measure how the right was able to change the terms of political debate in the first place, though the vision around which it articulates those concerns is largely a scam. After Barry Goldwater was swamped by Lyndon Johnson in 1964, militants of the right embarked on a strategic, long-term campaign that was largely grassroots-based. They realized that their push had been premature; the Johnson landslide showed them that it was necessary to take a step back and try to create a popular constituency for their political agenda. They pursued this objective by doing several things that we have consistently failed to do since the high period of civil rights and antiwar activism in the 1960s. They mobilized activists at the local level around issue-based campaigns that challenged the prevailing axes of incrementalist policy debate-for instance, for school prayer and tax cuts, against abortion, affirmative action, the Equal Rights Amendment, and school busing. They identified and cultivated bases of support around each of these issues and worked to knit them together into a coherent movement.
This is the stuff of social-movement building. For too long now progressives have operated as if we already have the mobilized constituencies that we need. The governing consensus in national politics indicates that we don't. This is one of the strategic limitations of the domestic mobilization to challenge the World Trade Organization and other neoliberal globalization initiatives. While a focus on mounting highly visible international protests is understandable and perhaps necessary, by themselves those actions do little to deepen popular awareness of the dynamics and dangers that activists wish to combat. To that extent, these mobilizations may be self-limiting in scope and effectiveness.
Their continued success requires planting roots within the broader population. Most Americans, however, have at most inchoate and incoherent views of the stakes of economic globalization; the interpretation of this process for popular discourse remains-at least outside the ranks of already committed progressives and attentive union members-the province of corporate media and its sound-bite analyses. It is past time for us to learn the same lesson that the right learned after Goldwater's defeat.
A common objection to this comparison is that the right succeeded because it plays to people's fears, which are supposedly easier to mobilize around than more abstract, less emotionally charged political programs. But the concrete fears that most people experience most acutely connect much more immediately with the programs of the left: for example, fear of job loss and declining living standards, lack of access to adequate health care, affordable housing, and quality education. Another objection, largely a smear by smug neoliberals, is that the left proposes no new ideas and offers only opposition without clear, practical alternatives. But the right galvanizes its ranks largely around opposition to abortion, taxation, civil rights, immigration, and social spending. And what ideas are more shopworn in American politics than racism, nativism, and unrestrained property rights? Indeed, the right persists in presenting itself as an opposition movement even as it consolidates its dominance of the political landscape under the mantra of bipartisanship.
It is only by taking up the challenge of building a coherent movement, creating and cultivating popular support for a long-term struggle focused on everyday needs-what are sometimes described as "practical utopias"-that it will be possible to redefine the terms of national policy debate. Removal of financial constraint on access to higher education could be such an initiative. It could appeal immediately to students, parents, university faculty and staff, and the organizations that represent them. It also has a natural and historic base in the labor movement, and not only among unions that represent workers in the education sector. Free public education was one of the two main demands of the earliest American unions, along with the shorter work week.
right's attempts to characterize public support for higher education
as an upper-middle-class giveaway, this is an issue that has resonance
throughout the population. 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 noninstrumental
reasons related to intellectual curiosity and self-fulfillment-is
not by any means the exclusive property of the upper middle class.
It is a condescending caricature that other working people do
not have similar aspirations. Indeed, an element of this issue's
appeal is its broad resonance within the population; it has the
potential to cut across the familiar lines of division by race,
gender, age, inner city, and suburb that the right has successfully
exploited and intensified over the past two decades.
The Debs-Jones-Douglass Institute, a nonprofit educational organization associated with the Labor Party, will put out a call this fall for a grassroots campaign to make higher education universally accessible to all academically qualifying potential students. (Accessibility also should require adequate remedial and developmental support for borderline admits and easy movement from community college through university on the basis of interest and demonstrated ability.)
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. As those earlier movements did, it could also achieve its own objectives and, in the process, expand the foundation of American democracy.
Adolph Reed, Jr., is professor of political science on the Graduate Faculty of Social and Political Science at the New School for Social Research, a member of the Interim National Council of the Labor Party, and serves on the board of Public Citizen, Inc. His most recent book is Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene.
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