College Should Be Free Again

By Donald Gutierrez

Many college students are deeply in debt today. Average debt recently cited on the news was $22,000. And the debts of students going into pre-professional graduate programs are far higher, amounting to six-digit sums. Usurious loan-company interest rates have certainly been part of the problem.

A larger and basic part of the student-debt crisis, however, is current college tuition rates. When I attended the University of California, Berkeley, in the early 1950s, California colleges were virtually free. There was an “Incidental Fee” ($35 per semester) that covered such privileges or needs as use of gym facilities or the campus hospital and access to an excellent scholarly library. Course books were relatively inexpensive. Now, even at a state university like Berkeley, the cost per year for an undergraduate, according to the UC Office of the Registrar, is almost $5,000 a semester and for a state-non-resident, over $16,000, while enrolling in Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of law costs almost $18,000 per semester — all this without counting books and living expenses.

State school fees such as Berkeley’s, if less than those of private colleges, still constitute debts that can imprison students financially for many years. A quick check of representative public universities like the University of Michigan and the City University of New York reveal similar high college fees. In California, moreover, at least twice as much money goes towards building and sustaining prisons as gets directed towards the state’s college budgets.

Higher education should be free to all young people who show an aptitude for and aspiration to advanced learning and professional or technical training. Society needs doctors, nurses, teachers, scholars, engineers, lawyers, architects, philosophers, accountants, scientists, artists, writers and other experts, but if high-debt hurdles exist and persist, the consequences are obvious — only those youths from wealthy or well-off families will be able to afford college, especially the quality colleges that allow students to secure significant jobs. What results is not only a class-based educational structure but the hardening of a class-structured society.

One major reason children with good grades but coming from low-income families could attend public schools like UC Berkeley was that wealthy and well-off Californians paid a sizable, progressive-tax share of property taxes. This all changed in 1978 when there was a California “revolution” brought about by an anti-property-tax activist named Howard Jarvis. Strongly appealing to the rich and to landlords, Jarvis’s Proposition 13 cut property taxes by 57% and allowed property to be taxed only during sale, no longer annually. This “relief” to the state’s rich and well-off had a devastating impact on California’s county and city budgets. Civil institutions like public libraries and public schools that potentially promote a more egalitarian society were badly hit financially. And though Berkeley today continues to have full enrollments and high ranking nationally among state universities, not everyone who merits attendance can afford to attend. And Pell Grants being slashed by half in recent years has obviously worsened matters.

In a society as wealthy as ours, what’s happening to the monies needed for something as crucial to a society’s future and well-being as financially democratic colleges? Let’s consider the kind of monies available in America’s financial institutions and the military sector. Extremely wealthy investors contribute billions of dollars to hedge-fund managers who transmit these monies electronically around the world in seconds — huge sums of monies free of taxation — to make more money for those investors. The issue implicit here is that the availability of wealth has been structured in such a way that vast sums of money badly needed and deserved for social, public needs have for generations not only been privatized but — especially recently — manipulated for extreme levels of personal gain.

This complex, devious activity has long evolved and occurred in too many ways to describe here, though Congress has played its part since the 1980s in creating regressive taxation and helping the rich get richer. Enormous sums of money that should be accessible for America’s infrastructure, schools, medical health programs and cultural facilities have been pouring into corporation, bank, and private-investor coffers. The most egregious manifestation of this robbery of the public is, of course, the recent financial meltdown in which the individuals and financial institutions that have devised and profited extraordinarily from deregulated financial dealings are now “solving” the crisis with public monies used to restore their former financial status quo and CEO bonuses.

One institution using massive amounts of public monies with very little critical media attention or evaluation is the Pentagon. A recent Mother Jones ongoing report entitled “Shock and Audit: the Hidden Defense Budget” (, June 22) indicates that “cost overruns for current major weapons programs now run $296 billion.” The report further observes that the 2009 budget President Obama requested is $534 billion and that the 2010 Pentagon budget will be $707 billion. Those two sums would, combined, amount to $ 1,241 trillion — for merely two years. This figure would — one hopes — include the immense cost of some 725 American military posts spread all around the world, which, according to Chalmers Johnson’s The Sorrows of Empire have “a total replacement value of $118 billion.”

As if all this isn’t enough public monies seized for the military, the Pentagon has a $300 billion 20-year-plus program to build F-35 Joint-Strike-Fighter warplanes. Though this ambitious and extremely costly plan will be done in league with eight “partner” nations, the US plans to foot much of the bill. Finally, as if to fantasize about more ways to spend American taxpayers’ money, the Pentagon harbors a high-placed senior officer named Michele A. Flournoy whose job it is to conceive and plan for new wars. That involves, according to the New York Times (July 4) “preparing for conflicts that could tie up American forces for decades. ...” The golden era of peace and thus of monies for civil needs that was promised to follow the demise of the Cold War is to continue being wiped out by Washington’s endless lust for wars and the Pentagon’s for more and newer ordnance.

Massive sums of monies going through hedge-funds, enormous bank and corporation-taxable monies slipping into off-shore tax-havens, monies supporting our two current unnecessary and illegal wars projected by economist Joseph Stiglitz to amount to $3 trillion over a decade, the enormous ordnance and military base costs (super Camp Bondsteel in the Balkans, built 1999, costs $180 million to run annually) — all of this involves sums of monies just a moderate portion of which would allow all young people qualifying in merit to go to college free (it would also supply enormous sums of money to finance a virtually free health system). According to journalist Adolph Reed Jr., “education is a social right, like health care. ... the cost of free college education is laughably low ... about $80 billion to make all public institutions free ...” (Nation, June 29) That $80 billion is less than 10% of the current Pentagon budget.

The University of California and other state universities throughout the country in the 1950s embodied educational democracy by making merit rather than wealth the means of access to higher education. We are now betraying that ideal and reality through a rigidly class-oriented structure of college costs and access that will doom the United States as an open society of opportunity for all if education is not once again democratized as it was after World War II. Monies unjustly arrogated by America’s financial and military sectors must be returned to essential civilian needs, among which higher education is crucial.

Donald K. Gutierrez is professor emeritus of English at Western New Mexico University. Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2009

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