My wife, Judy, and I have been talking about the upcoming presidential election. We have both served as college professors and are concerned about higher education. Bernie Sanders has been proposing that college tuition at public schools be made free for all who qualify. The demand for an educated work force has grown exponentially in the last few decades, and the only good jobs currently being created require higher education. Hilary Clinton pointed out, in a recent debate, that a portion of the cash to pay for this program would have to come from the states, and that Republican governors and Republican controlled state legislatures would balk at devoting more money to education.
Perhaps this problem could be resolved by creating federal grants and vouchers for college tuition that would be paid for by the following: 1. Cut health and retirement benefits for U.S. Senators and Representatives. 2. Cut military spending programs for weapons that the Pentagon does not need or want. 3. Eliminate tax breaks and loopholes that allow corporations and multi-millionaires to pay a lower tax rate than middle class, full time workers. 4. Stay out of wars of choice to keep down the national debt—in other words, only go to war when the safety of the United States and select allies is at stake, and conclusively prove the necessity of that choice with hard evidence.
Judy pointed out another problem with the Sanders’ plan: public institutions wouldn’t have the financial means to build new facilities and hire enough professors to withstand the tidal wave of enrollment that would follow.
Schools could raise their standards of admission until enrollment would be limited to a select few. Colleges would avoid breaking their budgets, but the problem of educating a new generation of workers would remain unsolved. There might be another alternative: why not set up a new, upgraded version of the GI bill and tie free college tuition to two years of service?
The service could be civilian (conservation work, assisting as teachers’ aides in impoverished school districts, elder care assistance, etc.) or military. Needed work to improve the social and physical infrastructure of the nation would get done at a low cost (room and board, initially), and the military would get a deeper pool of recruits.
Some of my recent college students suffer from an inflated sense of entitlement. They expect me to anticipate their unspoken needs minute by minute and seem unaware that they have to ask questions, pay attention and follow directions in order to learn the most and get the best results. If something goes wrong with an assignment they believe that the instructor is at fault, not them. Sometimes they view me as a temporary roadblock to their eventual expression of genius, and that if I simply praised them for the self-evident wonderment of their talents, knowledge and intelligence then everything could proceed according to their plans.
Older students who have served in the military or worked for a living are usually much better. They understand that I work hard to deliver useful information and advice, and they do their best to listen and complete assignments as directed. They’ve matured to the point where they understand that they have to work for success and improvement, and are aware that they may not have reached the upper limits of their talent. They realize that humility and an accurate self-assessment of their abilities are necessary for continued growth.
I believe that if more students were involved in service programs and gained a few years of maturity they would be better able to make the most of a college education. Free education would be a reward for a bit of self-sacrifice. Universities wouldn’t be swamped by a mass of new students as the group receiving subsidized tuition would be self-limiting. Not everyone would be willing to temporarily leave behind the comforts and freedom of a life where few demands are made upon them. The self-indulgent would be left to pay for their continued self-indulgence.