Paying the Price: Should College Be Free?
Sara Goldrick-Rab, a self-described “scholar-activist” who teaches higher education policy at Temple University, has a more expansive idea: Make the first two years free for everyone who attends a community college (all of which are public) or four-year state school. Directing more resources to the first two years of college would help people from lower-income families overcome the biggest barrier to their success, which is the living costs associated with housing, food, transportation and books while they attend school.
“When students are able to focus on college, and not work, they graduate,” Goldrick-Rab told me recently. The federal government currently gives tens of billions of dollars in grants and subsidies each year to private colleges and for-profit trade schools in the United States, despite the fact that public colleges educate three-quarters of the students pursuing a postsecondary degree. “I say let the privates and for-profits fend for themselves,” Goldrick-Rab says, and put that money instead toward what she sometimes calls Grades 13 and 14.
Finishing high school might once have provided enough education to find employment that pays well. But globalization and automation are decimating those jobs. Even manufacturing work that remains in (or returns) to America requires knowing how to operate the computers that run today’s factory floors, at least if you expect to earn anything close to a living wage. “It’s hard to do almost any job now without a 13th or 14th year of schooling,” Goldrick-Rab says. The establishment of universal high school in the early 20th century helped the United States economy surge past those of countries in Europe and elsewhere that lacked a similar educational standard. Making 14th grade the new 12th grade might be essential if the United States is to maintain its status as an economic powerhouse.
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