Monday, July 10, 2017


      Here’s the issue: free tuition for post-high school education at public universities. I think most Democrats favor taxpayers footing the bill, but how do we sell it to reluctant Dems and enough Republicans to see it enacted into law? Two possibilities follow.


      Raised by her mom, a single parent who struggled every month to pay the bills, Rose Wentworth, from her earliest days in school, was told that education was the gateway to opportunity, the only gateway. Study hard, keep your grades up, stay out of trouble, don’t get pregnant… the list continued on, but the goal line never moved. Good grades, a decent SAT score, admission to one of Ohio State University’s many campuses and eventual graduation. That was the price of the only ticket to a middle-class lifestyle.

      The odds were stacked against Rose. She moved six times during her twelve years in the Cleveland School System, changing schools on four occasions. Worse, she passed one seven-month period in the foster care system, always a crap shoot played with loaded dice. Yet Rose persevered, at times faltering, but always rallying, until finally, with the help of a few sympathetic teachers, Rose applied to Ohio State toward the end of her junior year. She was initially overjoyed when she received an acceptance letter, but her mood darkened after she met with an admissions councilor at the University who ticked off the costs. Tuition and fees: $10,037. Room and board: $11,666. Books and supplies: $1,234. Other expenses, some as simple as toothpaste, $2,602.

      Add it up: $25,539, none of which her mother could afford to pay.

      Financial aid? Rose certainly qualified, but due to federal cutbacks, along with cutbacks in support from the government of Ohio under John Kasich… well, there just wasn’t that much help available. No, if Rose was to graduate, she’d have to fall back on student loans. Loan money, the interviewer assured her, was easily secured, enough to leave her approximately $50,000 in debt when she graduated. With no guarantee of a job at the end.

      After long and careful consideration, Rose settled for a one-year nursing program. She is now a Licensed Practical Nurse making $16.00 an hour at a Cleveland nursing home.

      Is this right? We told this girl, born into poverty, that a pathway existed, a pathway that would lead to a middle-class life. Rose followed that path, maintaining good faith, passing twelve years in mostly-failing public schools, only to discover a gap, a chasm too deep to cross, yet close enough for her to see her goal on the other side.

      Any chart of U. S. GDP in constant dealers, from any source, reveals that America is richer than it’s ever been. Our GDP, again in constant dollars, is three times what it was in 1968, at the height of the War on Poverty. Yet the nation cannot keep its promises to kids like Rose. And make no mistake, the individuals who defined the sacred pathway were mostly teachers, employees of government. Bottom line, the moral debt we owe to students like Rose compels us to make sure that she can afford the college education we insist that she acquire. Thus, tuition should be eliminated at public universities for low-income students who qualify for admission. Justice demands it.


      For a long time, America, with a few exceptions, rejected taxpayer-financed education at any level. Most Americans, after all, were simple farmers living out in the boondocks. Following a plow, pulling stumps, milking cows… did they really need an education? Wasn’t a strong back, a stronger work ethic and a deep commitment to family, church and country enough to get you through life? But then the steam engine came along and suddenly farmers were confronted with plows and threshers and harvesters that made hand-farming unprofitable. Call them advances if you like, but these advances required money and financing and a host of new skills that, in turn, required education. At the same time, the country began to industrialize, again requiring workers to master new skills.

      Initially, public education was limited to the primary grades. Reading, writing and arithmetic. That was enough for the time. If parents wanted more for their children, they had to foot the bill. Only later, as the new technology (and the businesses they gave rise to) grew more complex did it become necessary to add high school to the mix. Today, most employers demand a high school diploma as a condition of employment. There may be some jobs available to dropouts, but they won’t put a roof over your head and clothes on your back and food in your belly.

     Technological advances have always required new skills. Steam engines worked well, but not perfectly, and not indefinitely. Maintaining them required skills that could not be acquired on the farm. The same might be said for electricity, the internal combustion engine and a host of advances. In fact, right now, as I write this, 3,000,000 jobs in the United States remain unfilled because employers cannot find workers with the necessary skills. These are the good jobs, the high-wage jobs so many working people long for. They are also jobs that require more knowledge than a high school education can deliver.

      The monthly jobs report will be released in an hour or so. The Trump administration is hoping for a number above 200,000, though most forecasters expect a lower number, around 170,000. But even if the administration is right, it will take this nation 15 months to produce 3,000,000 jobs. And yet, according to Forbes, 62% of high school students admitted to colleges around the country decided not to attend their first-choice school because they could not afford the costs. In another poll, reported on ThinkAdvisor, 83% of Americans declared that their children cannot not afford to go to college.

      While 3,000,000 jobs go unfilled? While the tax dollars those 3,000,000 jobs would generate go uncollected? While the goods and services that would have been purchased with the salaries from those jobs go unsold?

       Simply stated, it’s time to bite the bullet, because this situation will not improve on its own. First: the technology continues to develop at a pace that’s almost disconcerting and we are fast approaching the point where poorly educated children will inevitably become dependent – or worse, delinquent. Second: the cost of a college education continues to rise. Third: under these conditions, 3,000,000 jobs must inevitably become four and five and six million.

      This is a challenge our competitors in Europe and Asia have already met. Post-high school education is guaranteed to qualified students as a matter of course. Even in France, the tuition charged at a public university comes to $400 per school year, a far cry from, for example, from Ohio State’s $10,000. And while many negative stories have been written about the competitive nature of the admission process at Chinese universities, once students are finally admitted, they don’t reject the opportunity because they can’t afford the costs.

       Again, it’s time we take our heads out of the sand. The challenges America will face over the next fifty years require that we educate our children beyond high school. We cannot have millions of well-qualified students turning away from college because they can’t afford the costs. Keep in mind, a college graduate earns, on average, $830,000 (also according to Forbes) more than a high school graduate during his/her working life. Merely in terms of economic stimulus and taxes paid, the nation will get its money back and show a handsome profit. So, let’s not be fools. Let’s not be afraid to invest tax dollars in the future. Let’s not put ourselves in a position where jobs are routinely outsourced because there are no qualified Americans to fill them.

      Personally, I like the first framing better. That’s because I’m a progressive Democrat and sympathetic to the trials and tribulations or other human beings, unlike most Republicans who view poverty as resulting from a character flaw. But I’m already a Democrat who has never voted Republican and never will. I’m the choir.

      The second framing offer more promise as a lure to Republican voters. Not the Trumpians, of course. At present, they’re unreachable, as poll after poll has demonstrated. These working-class, white voters won’t come home until they’re driven home by some Republican atrocity. There are, however, other Republicans who are very uncomfortable with a President whose misogyny, racism and xenophobia are perpetually on display. I’m talking about well-educated professionals and small business owners who don’t care to explain Trump to their daughters. The second framing, an appeal to American pragmatism, to our “can do” spirit, to the attitude that made American great, might well attract them, essentially giving them an excuse to switch parties.

      Will this approach, extended to a wide range of issues, attract country-club Republicans? Not being a prophet, I won’t speculate, but I can’t come up with another approach that passes the smell test. Affluent Republicans hate taxes. Locked away in their isolated (if not actually gated) communities, they also view poverty as resulting from a character flaw. It may well prove that their obsession with lower taxes will offset their distaste and they’ll work with any group that promises to save them a few dollars at the end of the year. Nevertheless, we can be certain of one thing. Neither framing will attract the Trumpians. It’s moderate Republicans or continuing to lose elections, local, state and federal. 

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