Access to Higher Education Should Be a Federal Guarantee

Education is a fundamental human right, without which neither a large-scale democracy nor a large-scale economy can function. And higher education is becoming increasingly expensive, making it inaccessible to many. While it can be viewed as an investment which will pay off in the long run, not everybody has the capital on hand for that investment to seem worthwhile. As bachelor’s degrees become more and more essential to numerous forms of economic and political participation, the federal government has a responsibility to guarantee universal access to higher education in the United States.

Tuition rates at all types of institutions have been rising for decades (Smith & Szymanski; Reed & Szymanski; Digest of Education Statistics: 2009). More importantly, the growth rate of tuition has been substantially higher than that of family income. Many families must now fork out unsustainable percentages of their annual income just to keep students in school (Lewin). Part of the reason for this trend is that governments aren’t paying as much as they used to: the share of state funds going to education has declined by 1/3 during the last 30 years (Ehrenberg). Many state legislatures, filled with cowardly politicians, have a nasty habit of cutting public education budgets first when money gets short (Reed & Szymanski). The problem worsened when the federal government under Bush underfunded certain social programs, shifting the burden for those services to the states, many of which took funds from education to make up for it (Smith & Szymanski). In short, state governments are failing to adequately fund public universities, and tuition has been rising sharply as a result (Lewin).

The increasing price of tuition isn’t merely a monetary inconvenience for American families: it reduces the actual number of people who are financially able to attend college, limiting upward mobility and exacerbating the rich/poor gap.  Tuition hikes result in substantial numbers abandoning college partway through because of financial concerns (Smith & Szymanski). Also, there exists a large body of high school graduates who would enroll in college if they could afford it, but who never get that opportunity (Damon & Glewwe, Smith & Szymanski). The Congressional Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance has estimated that the number of potential bachelor’s degrees lost per decade for financial reasons is greater than 1% of the US population (Smith & Szymanski).

Current financial aid programs are nowhere near sufficient to overcome these barriers to higher education — both because they don’t reach enough people and because they provide inadequate assistance (Lewin). Policy changes have made loans, grants, and tax credits less available and less useful for low-income students (Reed & Szymanski; Smith & Szymanski). Also, reductions in the amount of aid given have forced low-income students to work long hours during school. The overall drop-out rate for low-income freshmen who work over 35 hours per week while they have classes is 53%. For those who work 1-14 hours, it’s 20% (Smith & Szymanski).

In addition to reducing participation in higher education, state funding reductions also damage its quality, encouraging “hiring freezes and early retirement among full-time faculty” which “increases the growth of poorly paid contingent instructors, overcrowded classrooms, and fewer courses” (Smith & Szymanski).

Public high schools are fully funded by their local and state governments. Many are currently underfunded, but at least in principle, free secondary education is a right guaranteed to all Americans. The structure of primary and secondary education laws should not be replicated at the post-secondary level, but the basic principle should be: access to a college or university education should be guaranteed to all high school graduates by the federal government, and adequate funding should be provided to back up that guarantee. One way to accomplish this would be for government funding to replace all public college and university tuition. Such a policy is justifiable under many widely-held sets of basic political assumptions, because education should be viewed as an essential purpose of the state, like law enforcement.

Public Knowledge
The modern world is developing into one in which new information rapidly becomes a public resource, available widely and for many productive purposes. Increasing college and university attendance would help spread that information, teach the public how to use it, and expand the body of people who are (even as students) contributing to it. Plus, having large and diverse groups of students on public campuses contributes to better scientific research samples. The government makes extensive use of public knowledge, so it has an interest in improving that knowledge as much as it can.

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” –Thomas Jefferson

The available evidence suggests that post-secondary education increases political participation and knowledge, which are essential to the credibility of the US as a democratic republic (Smith & Szymanski; Damon & Glewwe). A more politically aware public would contribute to better elected officials, better policy, and the maintenance of the basic justification for the state’s existence.

Post-secondary education increases earning potential, productivity, and economic participation, boosting the overall health of the economy, the government’s tax revenues, and charitable giving (Ehrenberg; Damon & Glewwe). It reduces the need for social services and welfare, which also saves the state money (Ehrenberg). Even individuals who do not attend college benefit from the college attendance of others (by, for example, learning skills through contact outside of the workplace), such that increases in college attendance raise average wages for nongraduates in the same geographic area (Ehrenberg; Damon & Glewwe). The public knowledge students help to produce also carries economic benefits for companies, individuals, and the government.

Colleges and universities frequently provide valuable services for nonstudent populations. As state money for education declines, these services also decline (Ehrenberg). University research output also benefits the community.

Essential components of modern developed society, such as medicine and communication technology, depend on education for their continued advancement. Major innovations in these unquestionably important fields require a combination of the right individuals and the right education for those individuals. The best way to maximize the probability of such an innovation (e.g., a cure for cancer) is to remove all barriers that might keep any group of individuals from achieving the necessary education.

Social Progress
Historical shifts in cultural attitudes are frequently driven by innovative ways of thinking. Education can help develop new ways of thinking, contributing to unforeseen positive consequences.

Egalitarianism / Ethics
This rationale, like political participation, emphasizes the need to establish the basic legitimacy of the underlying system. In other words, it is not dependent on an assumption about the “role of government.”

The education gap between rich and poor people is a basic flaw in our economic system. Even if it were theoretically possible to “succeed” regardless of one’s starting point, that “success” would depend on knowledge about the system itself and skills related to working within it. And our culture has shifted enough that a post-secondary degree is almost a prerequisite for full participation in many sectors of the economy. A complete educational guarantee (coupled with serious upgrades in the primary and secondary education systems) would go a long way toward providing equal access to the economy.

Even even for strict libertarians who don’t believe in “positive rights” as a rule, I propose that education should be viewed as one of the exceptions, like law enforcement. Education is a necessary (albeit insufficient) foundation of a functional market system. At a very basic theoretical level, a market is not a market without information.

A Note on Cost
The major objection to a federal education guarantee is that it would cost too much money.

In 2006-07, the total tuition revenue of all four-year public universities in the US was about $37 billion (Digest of Education Statistics: 2009). The rest of the revenue (another $185 billion) came from existing government funding, grants, investments, the sale of services, and other sources. For reference, $37 billion is about what it cost to spend a month or two in Iraq in the same year.

The long-term economic benefits of such a policy would more than pay for its annual cost. The original G.I. Bill, which was effective from 1944 through 1976, paid for post-secondary education for members of the armed services. More than 8 million people took advantage of its funding, and more than 3 million of those would not have attended college otherwise. A congressional report found that the G.I. Bill paid for itself through increased personal income tax revenue alone — not even counting the economic benefits of the goods and services its graduates produced (Smith & Szymanski).

A more recent report on Minnesota’s public colleges and universities suggests that even short-term economic cost calculations are more complicated than simple price estimations, because of immediate “public benefits” to increasing the proportion of the population with post-secondary degrees. Such benefits include higher overall incomes “due to diffusion of income generating skills from educated individuals to others via social interactions off the job” and minor economic gains from civic participation and reductions in crime. The report finds that the immediate economic cost of state funding for higher education is “much lower than annual state government appropriations” (Damon & Glewwe).

The modern world depends on education. Few investments would be more certain to pay off.

Works Cited

Damon, Amy & Glewwe, Paul. “Should governments subsidize tuition at public universities? Assessing the benefits of tuition subsidies provided by the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.” Internaional Science and Technology Practice and Policy Reports (March 2008).

Digest of Education Statistics: 2009. U.S. Department of Education: Institute of Education Sciences: National Center for Education Statistics.

Ehrenberg, Ronald G. What’s Happening to Public Higher Education?. Greenwood, 2006. Google books link:

Lewin, Tamar. “College May Become Unaffordable for Most in U.S.” New York Times 3 Dec. 2008.

Reed, Adolph Jr. & Szymanski, Sharon. “Free Higher Education.” Academe: Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors 90 (2004).

Smith, Preston H. & Szymanski, Sharon. “Why Political Scientists Should Support Free Public Higher Education.” PS: Political Science & Politics (October 2003): 699-703.

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6 Responses to “Access to Higher Education Should Be a Federal Guarantee”

  1. Ongoing Student Protest in Puerto Rico « Analysis of Variance Says:

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  2. Charles Says:

    Although I recognize the importance of education, I do not think that it is a fundamental human right. Providing education requires the destruction of other essential liberties. That is to say, if one were to make the case for a set of rights — natural and fundamental human rights — all of those rights must be compatible. Unfortunately, granting a positive right (the right “to”) must, by definition, infringe on an individual’s negative rights (freedom “from”). Positive rights are — by their very nature — an encroachment on actual “fundamental human rights.” Since positive rights are not compatible with negative rights, we must recognize that positive rights are, in fact, infringements on liberty. Isaiah Berlin’s essay on positive and negative liberty is a much more eloquent analysis of this theory.

    Also, you assert that education must be provided because “bachelor’s degrees [have] become more and more essential to numerous forms of economic and political participation.” The first notable problem with this statement is that it takes a consequentialist approach to education. Education is more than just political or economic training. If education is vocational preparation, then most of what happens in the classroom could just be taught on the job. Instead, education should be about higher things — philosophy, art, humanity, truth. Second, even if education was just a tool for economic and political development, your statement doesn’t justify government action. Even if we were to accept the premise that a Bachelors in Communications makes people better citizens and workers, it doesn’t follow that taxpayers should bankroll everyone’s tuition.

    There are two other serious problems to consider. First, if every kid did go to college, the market demand would increase while the supply remains constant. The problem: major tuition increases. This is unsustainable, especially for an already bankrupt government. Second, the benefits derived from getting a bachelors are a product of specialization. In other words, it’s because not every kid has a bachelors that a bachelors is valuable. If every kid gets one, it will simply force more students into masters programs to specialize — and then, following your logic, the argument could be made that it’s the Government’s role to pay for every student’s masters degree, and then doctorate after that.

  3. Sara Burke Says:

    Yay! Thanks for the comment, Charlie! (Can I still call you that, or are you Charles now?)

    The reason your description of positive rights doesn’t answer my argument is because I don’t buy that “freedom from taxation” is a negative right. That will be its own post someday. The one-sentence version is that the government constructs the economic system by guaranteeing the currency – use of that currency for transactions is not “property” on the same level that ownership of a refrigerator or a sailboat or a 27-foot clay sculpture of Franz Kafka is “property.”

    Even if you don’t buy that argument (which I obviously know you won’t), you must admit that SOME taxation is necessary (police? national defense?), in which case money cannot be viewed as an *absolute* right, even by libertarians, and my argument that education is *especially* important relative to other forms of government spending comes into play.

    I definitely do not propose having the government completely subsidize tuition to private universities. I favor more funding to public universities, with the aim of providing a minimal-tuition or tuition-free option. I considered the issue of private competition, and decided that I do not think such an option would make it impossible for private universities (which are also important) to stay afloat.

    I do not think the result of guaranteeing access would be to produce a work force where everyone has a degree. The number of people who would enroll if not for finances is substantial, but such people are probably still a minority of the population without post-secondary degrees. I do not think it is ethical for an economic system to make college attendance dependent on existing financial resources — such a system is a serious Catch-22 for youth from working-class and middle-class families.

    In my field, all the good grad schools already pay for their students’ tuition under most normal conditions. And having a Ph.D. in psychology is at least slightly better than not having one, no matter what it is you want to do. But most people don’t just enter Ph.D. programs for the hell of it.

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