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Op-ed: Make college affordable to make democracy work

First Published      Last Updated Mar 09 2017 10:10 pm

In January 2015, I wrote an op-ed for The Tribune in response to President Obama's free community college proposal. The free college movement has since evolved and was championed by the Democratic presidential candidates, but the election of Donald Trump warrants a reassessment of the free college movement and a reprioritization of the democratic purpose of public higher education.

So what is the future of free college, and why does it matter? I want to make two critical points. First, the election outcome suggests that a federal policy on free college is very unlikely, elevating the importance and role of state and local polices to improve college affordability. Second, the crude and uncivilized presidential campaign rhetoric and behavior, coupled with the dismal voter turnout rate of approximately 55 percent, are an assault to our civic duties and social contract; they are a failure of our postsecondary education system, and we can and must do better as a nation and a democracy. Let me expand on both points.




For the average American, the price of college is simply out of reach, and the disinvestment of state funds in public higher education has directly contributed to this. In 1990, states paid about 75 percent of the cost of public college while students and families kicked in the other 25 percent in tuition and fees. By 2015, the state proportion decreased to 50 percent and students and families now pay the other 50 percent in tuition and fees. This disproportionately affects low-income families, as evidenced by the 30 percent gap in college enrollment between the highest and lowest income groups. Decades of research shows that the price of college is a significant barrier to college entry, and despite the vast availability of student loans, low-income students are extremely loan averse.

Local and state "Promise" programs are expanding across the country and represent an opportunity for states, cities, and communities to reinvest in public higher education and help close the income gap in college enrollment. Tennessee, Oregon, Salt Lake Community College and hundreds of colleges are investing in students to improve college affordability and equalize opportunity.

Why does college affordability matter? Because our democracy depends on it. The economic value of a college degree is well-documented, but college has benefits that extend well beyond individual economic returns. A primary function of postsecondary education is to develop our citizens, prepare them to participate in democratic processes, engender a sense of social responsibility, and develop an appreciation and respect for difference across cultures and peoples.

In the aftermath of World War II and during one of the darkest moments in world history, President Harry Truman appointed a Commission on Higher Education, the first of its kind in the United States. In an influential report titled, "Higher Education for American Democracy," the commission unequivocally advocated for a robust postsecondary education system that would lead to "a fuller realization of democracy in every phase of living." The report argued that education should "insure equal liberty and equal opportunity to differing individuals and groups, and to enable citizens to understand, appraise, and redirect forces, men [sic], and events as these tend to strengthen or to weaken their liberties." The report prompted decades of federal and state expansion and public investments in higher education, and it expanded college access from the elites to the masses.

The recent election process and outcome are evidence of a partial failure of this democratic vision for higher education. Although many citizens and leaders upheld civil and moral principles during the campaign and many exercised their right to vote, many citizens did not. Many did not because their access to college has been constrained by state disinvestment in public higher education, and because colleges have not adequately designed curricula and experiences to ensure all graduates and future leaders are prepared to be good citizens, participate in democracy, and be socially conscious and responsible.

This is a call to action for the Utah Legislature and education leaders in Utah. Let's restore access to college for all Utah citizens by reinvesting funding in public higher education and making college affordable to low-income students. Let's elevate the noneconomic and social benefits of higher education and expand our college curricula and experiences to promote the values and goals of higher education espoused in the Truman Commission Report.

Jason L. Taylor is an assistant professor of higher education in the department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Utah. He is a first-generation college graduate and studies college access, equity, affordability and success.

 

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