Destroying Education in the Name of the Free Market

As the families of millions of American high school students have noticed, the cost of a college education is now at the highest that anyone can remember. While loans are within the grasp of many, if not most, to pay for the expense of this education, the cost of paying back these loans often prices students out of jobs in the nonprofit or public service sector.

In the past, there were some programs available for debt relief for those students who become teachers for a given number of years, these programs have been trimmed back, or eliminated entirely, in the pursuit of balancing state budgets.

As the cost of a bachelor's degree climbs to more than $40,000 at many private institutions -- reaching almost to the median family income (approximately $50,000 per year)-- the last best hope for millions of American high school students is our nation's state or local universities. Until the 1970s, a college education at one of the City University of New York schools was entirely free. Even until the 2000s, many state schools charged only nominal tuition (almost always under $10,000). Yet in recent years these institutions have been gutted by governments desperate to cut back on spending and have suffered the efforts of a Republican Party very suddenly (and conveniently) interested in avoiding deficits.

These universities have, by some miracle, managed to keep their tuition rates significantly below those of most private universities (for example, Rutgers University costs less than $12,000 per year whereas the price tag for a year at Carnegie Mellon University is about five times that. Budget cuts, however, remain underway. Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ), for example, cut $500 million from the New Jersey education budget and his administration furthermore failed to correctly file the papers to win a piece of the $400 million in funding for primary and secondary education from the federal government.

These cuts threaten the ability of state schools to provide a worthwhile higher education to students. Nonetheless, thus far American public universities have managed to survive: the quality education offered at the hundreds of state-run institutions of higher education in the United States remain a testament to the fact that, despite the perennial insistence of the GOP, the private sector is not always capable of providing better services at a lower cost. Schools such as University of California -- Berkeley, Boalt Hall (UC Berkeley Law School), University of California -- Los Angeles, University of North Carolina -- Chapel Hill, Rutgers University, University of Michigan -- Ann Arbor, University of Maryland -- College Park, and a litany of other state schools are all ranked by the US News & World Report as within the top 100, if not top 50, educational institutions in the United States.

Whereas in many cases the personal debt associated with attending a private university is unjustifiable, the affordability and quality of education offered by many state universities is frequently the best shot that millions of Americans have at what passes for social mobility these days. These schools offer middle-class and working-class Americans the ability to pursue higher education without taking on an oppressive amount of debt, which will undoubtedly limit their options come graduation day. Despite these seemingly self-evident facts, however, Republicans continually pursue budget cuts for all state-run programs -- public universities included.

If a college degree is to indicate anything other than socio-economic status, then American public higher education must remain fully funded. Private universities continue to raise their tuition not necessarily because of their own increasing costs, rather because they believe that Americans are willing to continue to pay it. Without affordable public universities, the choice, for almost all people, will be between a lifetime of debt or a lifetime of little earning potential.

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