‘Free public college’ not a radical, or new, idea

By Jeff Klein

The University of Massachusetts system is raising tuition yet again.  Incoming freshmen and returning students will now be facing costs of up to $30,000 per year – for many adding to already crippling college debt burden.

It’s a pattern of rising costs that has continued for many years, and not just for our state. All over the country, public university tuitions have been increasing steadily, contributing to sharply rising student debt that now totals more than $1.5 trillion (that’s trillion with a t!) for more than 44 million student borrowers.

As corporate-led globalism has caused the decline of good-paying union and manufacturing jobs, a college education is seen by many as their only ticket for entry into an economically stable career.  But the costs and debts are burdening a new generation well into their adulthood.  And the student debt overhang is an ongoing drag on our economy as a whole.

It wasn’t always this way.  For most of the 1950s and 60s, UMass tuition was a nominal $100-200 a year, as it was at many public institutions of higher education.  At the City College of New York – a branch of the highly respected City University system that I attended in the 1960s – tuition was free.

Now the issue of free or low-cost public college tuition has become a campaign plank of several Democratic candidates and increasingly a topic of public debate.  Naysayers claim that our country “cannot afford” free public higher education. But somehow, decades ago, when the US economy was one-sixth as large as it is today, free or low-cost public college was nearly universal.

What happened?

State and federal aid to higher education has stagnated or declined for many years.  This is the underlying cause for soaring public college tuition. It is understandable that states have had trouble keeping up with the costs of their public colleges, but the starving of education budgets did not just happen by chance.  It was the outcome of tax and economic policies that were imposed from the 1970s to the present day.

In 1963, when I entered tuition-free City College, the top marginal federal tax rate on high incomes was 91 percent.  Corporate income tax was 52 percent, and capital gains were taxed at 25 percent. Top estate taxes, imposed early in the century under the theory that US democracy should not enable the creation of huge inherited fortunes and a hereditary plutocratic class, were 80 percent.  Corporate CEO’s were well compensated in those days, but their incomes were decidedly modest when compared to the huge top salaries of today.

Remember that this “high-tax” era was a period of unprecedented US economic growth that we cannot even dream of approaching now.  What is more, this growth was widely shared across the economy as more and more workers were able to join a rising middle-income lifestyle.

All of this was destined to change as Big Money asserted increasing control over both political parties. Today, after the Reagan-Bush-Trump tax cuts, the top income tax rate for the rich is 37 percent (down from 70-91% in the 1960s), and corporate taxes are capped at 21 percent.  The estate tax has been nearly gutted over the years.

And these reductions ignore the huge amounts of wealth that are exempt from taxes due to burgeoning loopholes and modern methods of hiding $trillions in secret tax havens around the world.

Soaring public college tuitions were not an accident. In New York City, one of the conditions for Wall Street help in overcoming its 1975 fiscal problems was the imposition of tuition at the City University – along with the diminishment of union power an pay for public workers.

Here in Massachusetts, wealthy and corporate interests have combined to stymie attempts to make our state income tax more progressive and have the rich pay a larger share.

Meanwhile, on the federal level, the corporate and income tax revenues that survive are increasingly spent on funding the military. In 2019 the Pentagon accounted for more than 50 percent of discretionary spending – higher in real terms than during the height of the Cold War and the conflict in Vietnam.  (Our military spending is more than the next dozen or so spending countries combined, many of them US allies.) Federal education spending at all levels accounts for only 5 percent of the federal discretionary budget.

No wonder the states are strapped for money to pay for public higher education.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  In 2020, voters will have a chance to vote for presidential and Congressional candidates who are committed to restoring affordable public higher education, while reducing or eliminating the crippling burden of student debt. Their plans are funded by restoring some of the tax burden on the wealthy and the corporations that has been eroded over the years.

Free public higher education is the foundation for broadening economic opportunities in our society. It represents an important step if we are going to reclaim our democracy, provide for widely-shared prosperity – and loosen the grip of wealthy interests on our government policies.

We can afford this.  In fact, if we value the seriously eroded “American dream,” we can’t afford not to.

Jeff Klein is a retired local union president and is active with Dorchester People for Peace and Massachusetts Peace Action.