Higher Education

Hilzik: Public Higher Education Should Be Free

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Michael Hilzik of the Los Angeles Times reminds readers that public higher education in California used to be tuition free. It was also tuition free for qualified students at the City University of Néw York.

“President Obama’s proposal unveiled Thursday to provide free community college education to all “responsible” students is garnering immense attention. That’s as it should be, although the details still need to be fleshed out and individual states will have to agree to shoulder a share of the costs.

“But the proposal fails to address one glaring flaw in the nation’s overall system of public higher education: It should all be free. That’s the way it is in Germany, for instance, where there is a long tradition of low-cost university study. In 2014 the last German state holding out against free university education threw in the towel; now anyone, including foreign students, can study at a German university at public expense.

“Free higher education to qualified students was also the rule in California, where the University of California had no tuition for state residents until Gov. Ronald Reagan demanded it in the early 1970s. Once the door was cracked open for tuition charges, it swung wide; a Berkeley or UCLA education was pegged at $12,192 for state residents in 2014-15, plus myriad other fees….

“Free tuition has since come to be viewed as an anachronism, charming to contemplate in the abstract but simply incompatible with modern life. But the numbers don’t support that conclusion. The real obstacle to reinstating it is that it represents a path to social mobility for the working class and the poor–that’s the aspect that’s anachronistic in our grasping modern world.

“Consider this: When the corporate plutocrat Meg Whitman was running for California governor in 2010, she had no trouble proposing the elimination of the state’s capital gains tax, which brought in more than $10 billion in a decent year. Eliminating all in-state tuition, according to a UC report issued around the same time, would have cost only $3 billion.

“Which option would be an investment yielding a greater, broader return to the state? Unmistakably the latter. The roll of distinguished Californians educated for free at UC before the 1970s is a long one. It includes former Governor and U.S. Chief Justice Earl Warren; Ralph Bunche (the first black Nobel Peace Prize laureate); author Maxine Hong Kingston; the discoverer of plutonium (and later Berkeley chancellor) Glenn Seaborg; and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.”

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