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Degrees for Free

As public college costs rise, some say free universal access is the way to go.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Proposals (Not Yet Programs) for Public Higher Education

* Free Community College in Massachusetts

Governor Deval Patrick proposed free community college as part of his 10-year plan when he announced the Readiness Project, his commission on public education. The Board of Higher Education Task Force on Financial Aid released in fall 2007 a proposal to allow tuition and fee waivers to students attending community college. The price tag ranges from $32.5 million (for 5, 884 students) to $57.5 million (10,600 students). And there are a few conditions: students must enroll in community college within six months of high school graduation, complete four years of college preparatory English and math in high school, pass a Board of Education common assessment, and pay for books, living expenses, and transportation. Forecasts for a tight state budget suggest that the proposal may go on hold, but scaled-down variations may be considered

* A New G. I. Bill

U.S. Senators Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) advocate a Post-Iraq G.I. Bill akin to the World War II G.I. Bill, which paid college tuition and fees, bought textbooks, and provided a monthly stipend for half the 16 million soldiers who served in World War II. Veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq have only the Montgomery G.I. Bill, which provides a flat payment for college that hardly covers the cost of community college.

The original G.I. Bill created one of the largest social entitlement programs in U.S. history (costing $14 billion for college and other forms of education and training). However, it was also the most profitable entitlement program ever, returning almost seven times its investment in eventual tax revenues. Are we ready for that investment and that rate of return?

* The Campaign for Free Higher Education ("A G.I. Bill for Everyone")

Rather than tweaking the system, political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. formulated and promotes "A G.I. Bill for Everybody" calling for free public higher education for all qualified students. Reed estimates that this would cost between $30 and $50 billion per year. He also notes that the estimated amount (some 2 percent of the federal budget) is small compared to military spending; others suggest repealing the tax cuts for the top 1 percent could raise the amount. With Labor Party organizer Mark Dudzic, Reed formed the Campaign for Free Higher Education (www.freehighered.org). One compelling point is that high school education was not always free, but became a part of the public education system when high school education became necessary for the work force. Now, says the Campaign, college education serves the same role, so free tuition for everyone becomes part of K-16 public education.

* The Dodd Plan: Community College for All

Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd has a plank in his education platform, "Community College for All," calling for the federal government to partner with the states to subsidize in-state tuition at public community colleges for students earning credit towards an associate's degree. Dodd's plan would match—dollar for dollar—any tuition reduction offered by the state. Under this plan, Dodd supporters claim, community college could be free for every American. Dodd's run for the Democratic presidential nomination did not exactly catch fire, but he could be influential in formulating education reform policy.

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