Lessons that COULD be learned from a year in a pandemic

For better or worse the past year has been a giant natural experiment in education. Some schools have been closed for in-person learning for more than a year while others have opened in some form. Some have provided the neediest students back on campus while leaving the more “self-sufficient” students to make do with ZOOM or other virtual learning tool. Teachers have worked exhausting hours trying to make virtual, hybrid and even pen and paper work for students. They should be applauded.

This year also has taught us a lot about what works and what doesn’t:

  1. The value of in-person learning: for years there has been a large push by some education reformers to move from in-person learning to technology. Often touted as “personalized learning,” reformers argue that students can easily learn everything they need sitting on a computer all day. If it was unclear before, it is no longer. Even with live interaction with teachers and other students, students struggled through a long year of online learning. Teachers have expressed strong feelings about the negative effects of online all the time including learning loss both academically and socially. A recent study from the Center for Disease Control found that online learning can be damaging to children’s emotional and mental health. Additionally, virtual learning is not universal. It does not necessarily mean live interaction with teachers. A U.S. Department of Education survey from March 2021 found that “10% of eighth-graders, and 5% of fourth-graders, are getting no live instruction at all when learning remotely.” They are essentially being given homework packets.
  2. Virtual Learning has its place, but it’s a small one: one discovery is that online can work when absolutely necessary. For example, inclement weather in many parts of the country can close schools. Now schools may consider making a snow day into a zoom day rather than disrupt the school schedule. Having said that there is a still a gap in access to the internet. The schools have made a major effort to connect all students, but it isn’t there yet. Furthermore, several studies point to a disparate impact of the online learning environment particularly for blacks and Latinos who have had less access to internet than their white peers: “he October US Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey shows that 91 percent of households with K–12 students always or usually have access to a device for learning and internet access. Although gaps have narrowed since the spring, Black and Hispanic households are still three to four percentage points less likely than white households to have reliable access to devices, and three to six percentage points less likely to have reliable access to the internet. “
  3. Hybrid learning is worse than virtual: having some students in the classroom and some online is not only a logistical nightmare but also in many ways worse than virtual learning. Teachers can’t fully take advantage of the in-person setting without leaving the virtual learners out. Often teachers found that regardless of having students in the classroom, the easiest was just to treat it like everyone was virtual learning. So, in essence students just sat in their teachers’ classroom doing virtual learning rather than at home. The value for students on campus was some interaction during breaks, but it is difficult to argue that the academic experience was better.
  4. Infrastructure continues to be ignored: even before the pandemic, there were classrooms without proper venting, heating, or space. You may recall the story of students sitting in Baltimore classrooms wrapped in their coats trying to learn in the winter cold. Guidelines for school reopening required spreading out students in already overcrowded classrooms. The only way to do this is to leave some students at home (although more than one policy maker demonstrating their lack of awareness of schools, teaching, and students suggested that schools just move outside.) Even if schools could get students inside, many of them did not meet the guidelines for ventilation. School infrastructure has been neglected for years. Mountain View Union School District, a relatively small and wealthy K-8 district in California, announced early in the 2020-21 school year that it would take them until at least January 2021 to prepare get the school venting up to the required standards (the district opened with limited capacity in mid-March 2021). The crisis shed additional light on the crumbling schools in this country. It is unclear whether the crisis will be enough to prompt the expenditure of funds to fix the schools.
  5. Disparity between socioeconomic status widely apparent in schools: Access to in-person learning heavily favored upper middle class and middle class white children. According to a report from the Center for Disease Control, Black and Latino parents were more concerned about school re-openings and less likely to send their students to in-person learning during the pandemic. Lawsuits to reopen schools came largely from white and middle class parents. A survey by the U.S. Department of Education released in March found that “68% of Asian, 58% of Black and 56% of Hispanic fourth graders were learning entirely remotely, while just 27% of White students were.” Resourced parents are stretching themselves to the limit to put their kids in private school primarily because private schools were able to open for in-person learning five days a week.
  6. Schools are also daycare: As much as we would like to glorify schools as being all about education, the reality is that we have grown a society that needs them to be regular daycare. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics “among married-couple families with children…64.2 percent had both parents employed.”  Parents are highly dependent on schools to provide childcare. When school went online, parents juggled what they could, but many ended up having to become one-income households. Women left the workforce by the millions to watch their children, help with school work, and get students online. Women’s workforce participation has dropped to 57%, a level not seen since 1988. Without schools and viable alternatives, children were put first. And while traditionalists may applaud the stay at home mom, ultimately it hurts women to lose opportunities. Furthermore, many households depend on being dual-income to survive. The impact on families is likely to be felt for years to come.

Even after a year of virtual learning and additional knowledge about its negative effects, many school districts plan to continue virtual learning, according to a recent RAND study. So, perhaps we as a society have learned very little from a global pandemic. I hope not, but hope may be all I have until our policymakers wake up to the realities of the educational needs of our community.

Community college: the hardest sector in Education

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Community colleges were founded with the intention to provide college skills for student in preparation of transfer to four year post-secondary institutions.  Over the past century community colleges have evolved to play a vital role in the higher education landscape (Dougherty, 1998).  Community colleges are not just transfer institutions anymore. Their purpose is multifold: transfer, associate’s degrees, certificates and training, and community center. With so many different purposes, community colleges have some of the hardest work to do in all of education.

In 2009, over forty percent of undergraduates in the United States were enrolled in community colleges (Jenkins, 2011).  Despite enrolling over 12.4 million students across the nation, transfer rates remain low.  Only twenty-two percent of students who enter community colleges with the intent to transfer actually do so (McCormick & Carroll, 1997).  California Community Colleges (CCC) enroll approximately two-thirds of California’s college students (Horn & Lew, 2007).  In California, about twenty-three percent of students degree seekers transferred to four year institutions (Moore & Schulock, 2010).   Six years after enrolling less than thirty percent of those students had earned a degree or transferred (Moore & Schulock, 2010).  Among Latinos and African Americans, completion rates are even lower with less than twenty-percent and twenty-five percent respectively transferring or receiving a certificate or degree.  The low transfer rate is troubling.

            While transfer rates remain low, the need for education beyond a high school diploma continues to increase.  A report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (2010) projects that sixty-percent of jobs in America will require at least some college, forty-five percent of which will require at least an associate’s degree. 

There is significant pressure on community colleges to provide technical skills training (certificates), prepare students to transfer to four-year institutions, enable students to achieve AA degrees all while serving the community. It is a near impossible task with limited resources. It is difficult enough to do one thing really well, but community colleges are asked to serve many purposes. Perhaps rather than decry the failures of community colleges to get more students to four-year institutions, we should applaud what they can achieve with the challenges they face. Furthermore, the assumption is that community colleges are failing (and in some ways they are) rather than that not all students will choose to go down the path to a four-year institution no matter what community colleges or others do.

It’s testing season, again.

Spring is here which means that the annual standardized testing season is upon us. Many students have not been a physical classroom in more than a year, and yet the powers that be at all level are “debating” whether they should bring kids in to test them. While standardized tests can certainly reveal a lot about the effectiveness of distance learning, perhaps the needs of students should surpass that of the research.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind as the new version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, annual standardized testing in the United States but with new measures to make it less punitive. Schools are no longer required to make “annual yearly progress” and teacher evaluations are not directly tied to student test outcomes, at least from the federal level. As of 2019 thirty-four states require student growth outcomes as part of teacher evaluations. In eight of those states, student growth is not required to be measured by standardized tests. So, for a good percentage of schools, the assumption is that the tests are necessary to keep business as normal. But of course, it hasn’t been business as normal for a year.

While many schools are likely to be open by May, do we want to waste the remaining precious time in the school year on having them sit through standardized testing? It has been a brutal year plus on these children in terms of education. Districts are already developing plans for students to come to in-person summer school. So, if districts are assuming there needs to be more in-person learning, why not let students re-connect with each other and the fun of learning in the weeks they have left in class. The fact that standardized testing is even up for debate tells me that the powers that be: don’t really think about what students need and that the testing lobby is as powerful as ever. But then again, it isn’t as if I didn’t already know this.

Oh, those immigrant children?!

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

“Schools wouldn’t be closed if we didn’t have to pay for those immigrant children,” I recently read. I suspect the author of the quote actually means non-white and non-Asian children, but there is no way to know. The author of this quote lives in Palo Alto, an affluent neighborhood who spends $16,000 per student, well above the national average of $12,612. White and Asian students make up more than 70% of the students in the Palo Alto Unified School District. The “immigrant” children aren’t keeping schools closed.

Not only is this offensive on multiple levels, it is just plain wrong. The issues with schools, now and in normal times, is not funding to educate the immigrant children. Ten percent of students in the United States are ELLs (English Language Learners). In California and Texas, ELLs make up 19.2 and 18% of students respectively. In Vermont and New Hampshire, less than 3% of students are ELLs. It is important to note that according to the Pew Research Center 72% of ELL students were born in the United States i.e. they aren’t immigrants. In 2016 approximately $150 was designated per each ELL.

It isn’t that we are spending so much money on “immigrant” or ELLs who are mostly not immigrants, it is that we refuse to invest long-term in the funding in our schools and our children. The infrastructure of schools is in desperate need of an upgrade. Policy makers have neglected school infrastructure for decades. You might recall the story from January 2018 of students attending school in Baltimore huddled in their coats because of lack of heat. More than 1/3 of the schools had no heat in the cold days of winter. Then there are stories of rodent infested schools in Chicago, ceilings with mold and wasps nests, and lack of books from all over the country. It has been decades of neglecting schools. We simply don’t invest in our children. We expect them to learn no matter what the conditions.

So, when policy makers talk about opening the schools safely, it goes beyond masks and disinfectant. This is the day to think long-term. We need to spend what the NEA estimates to be $46 billion on schools to bring them up to modern building standards. Every school should be a welcoming safe environment to learn. This is not about getting the kids in the classroom today, it is about investing in their future.

The fallacy of policymakers: episode 1

This is the first in a series which highlights the failed understanding of policymakers in policy implementation, how schools work, and how to educate.

It’s almost too easy to find examples of the disconnect between policy and implementation. Governor Newsom’s $2 billion reopening plan is just the latest in a failed attempt to address student needs. (Sometimes I wonder if he or his staff have actually talked to a single educator, district personnel, or teacher before proposing policies. Between stating last summer that schools should try to hold class outside or “class assignments that are challenging and equivalent to in-person instruction,” it often seems that he has never been in a school. Or perhaps he intentionally wants the policy to fail, but is hoping that it will look to the untrained eye as if he is actually doing something. Throwing out an impossible policy he can perhaps shift the blame of schools not providing in person classes on teachers in an attempt to deflect his pathetic handling of the pandemic away from constituents’ minds (the push to recall him is gaining steam daily). It’s unclear what his motivations are.

At the end of 2020, Governor Newsom announced a $2 billion plan to reopen elementary schools for in-person learning across California by February 15th. His proposal included extra funds ($450 to $700 per student) to schools who agreed to bring students back to schools with rigorous restrictions. The plan assumes low infection rates in the area of the school (less than 28 new cases per 100,000 people). To put this in perspective, as of this writing Los Angeles was at 70.6 per 100,000 and San Bernardino was at 72.1. San Francisco was closer to achieving this goal with just 28.6 new cases per 100,000 in a rolling 7-day average. Also in the plan is regular testing of students and teachers that even at a discounted rate is expensive. Creating the infrastructure to conduct regular testing may be completely out of reach for most schools. It simply is not what they do. And interestingly absent from the plan was a push to get teachers in the state vaccinated before reopening without which unions oppose.

Newsom’s plan shows a basic lack of understanding of the resources available to schools and the feasibility of implementing his plan. Money is an issue but so is teacher vaccination, updating outdated air systems in many schools, developing a testing system within schools and of course, the covid infection rate in the community, which the schools have no control over. If Newsom had talked to the superintendents and teachers in the largest districts, he could have, perhaps, developed a reasonable plan to get students back to school. Of course, the number one thing he could do is to end the pandemic. Back in March he could have kept the state closed until the virus was all but eliminated or could have developed a shelter in place for the most at risk and continued life for the general public who are not in danger of death and will most certainly need to be exposed to the virus while they are young. He could have prioritized the youth. But he didn’t. So, now he needs to stop wasting time on a wasted year. He needs to get the elderly vaccinated so that schools can safely reopen and not expend time and energy on measures that simply do not help schools do their job which is to educate.

The Intention to Destroy Teachers

I was a subpar first year teacher and a moderately decent teacher when I left the profession four years later. In my first year teaching I had 3 different preps. The man who taught next door to me had 1 prep, US History, which he had been teaching for more than twenty years. In my second year I again had 3 different preps, all of which were different subjects and grade levels than my first year teaching. Yearbook was one of the classes I “taught” my second year, which was absurd as I had never even been on a yearbook or newspaper staff. It was the blind leading the blind. My third year teaching I had only 2 preps, but they were different than both the first and second years teaching. In short, in my first 3 years as a teacher I taught 8 different subjects and levels. I never taught anything twice.

My experience is not uncommon. New teachers are the lowest individuals on the totem pole. They are most often assigned whatever is leftover in the schedule, which means they are likely to teach a variety of different levels. Sometimes they have a textbook as a guide; sometimes not. They are poorly paid (the proposed $15 an hour minimum wage would give teachers in places such as Huntsville, Alabama a raise), eviscerated in the press and by policymakers, and work long hours. It is no wonder that forty to fifty percent of teachers leave within the first five years of teaching. Being a teacher in the United States is tough. And there isn’t a large pool of students lining up to become a teacher. Enrollment in teacher education programs from 2010 to 2019 dropped in all states. Nine states lost more than 50% of their enrollment. Oklahoma saw the biggest drop in enrollment with 80% less students enrolling in teacher education programs by 2019 than in 2010.

The current and growing teacher shortage has been a topic of consternation for decades. The proposed solutions show a tone deaf understanding of the problems teachers face and a disinterest in investing in education beyond the bare minimum. One of my favorite of these tone deaf policies is teacher housing. In expensive areas such as the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, and New York, it is difficult for teachers to find affordable housing somewhat near where they work. The San Francisco Bay Area has the dubious honor of having the highest disparity between teacher salaries and rental prices in California. Over the past two decades, school districts have built housing for teachers to provide more affordable rent.

Teaching housing is a contentious issues on multiple fronts. In some areas residents oppose building “affordable” housing for teachers in their suburban neighborhoods. When San Jose Unified who loses 1 in 7 teachers every year proposed building teacher housing, residents took to the internet to sign an online petition opposing it. The originator of the petition sends his child to private school but claims that people pay high prices to live in San Jose for the great schools. As one teacher so aptly put it “Families trust us with their kids from 8 to 3 every day. I don’t know why it wouldn’t be the case that they would trust us in their communities.” So, we have the problem that teacher housing is not supported by the communities where the teachers teach plus housing is most often targeted at single teachers. It doesn’t solve the problem of retaining teachers when they want to have families.

More to the point we have little to no evidence that this “solution” attracts or keeps teachers. According to a 2019 article from EdSource, there is no research linking teacher housing to retention. We do know that teacher compensation is linked to retention. In other words we simply have to pay teachers a professional wage. But that requires a real investment. A solution that policy makers are resistant to at all levels.

To attract and retain teachers, we need to dig in with real change:

  1. Pay a professional wage.
  2. Make it harder to become a teacher i.e. attract the best and the brightest by making it a competitive field with competitive wages and societal respect of the profession (Finland is a great example of this).
  3. Support the newest teachers with fewer preps and fewer changes in the first five years. What if instead of giving teachers 4 – 5 preps and changing those preps year to year we supported teachers through easily the hardest years of teaching.

I would like to say I am surprised that policy makers continue to develop “inexpensive” solutions to attracting and retaining teachers, but I am not. It has been clear for decades that the political and business elite like to talk about the importance of education but if it requires them to spend a little bit more money to do so then their real opinion about education becomes apparent.

Defunding education

Kevin Siers of the Charlotte Observerin the Star-Courier, Highlands-Crosby, Texas, March 11, 2004

Remember the college student who had the assignment to argue the value of an educated population. The second question for the assignment was why is so little spent on education. Shrug?! This is a question I ask every day.

Compared to the rest of the world, the United States is one of the top spenders in education.

Yet, they rank poorly compared to the world on educational outcomes as measured by test scores on the PISA:

And education levels of adults:

Korea which spends a little over $1,000 less per student has a population with 69.8% of adults between the ages of 25 and 34 holding some degree above high school. In the United States that percent is just 50. Finland which ranks 4th on the PISA scores spends more than $3,000 less per student than the United States.

I can easily argue that more money needs to be spent more equitably on education in the United States, it clearly isn’t just the money (or isn’t the money everywhere). As Linda Darling-Hammond and Jeffrey Raikes pointed out, “Grow up in a rich neighborhood with high property taxes? You get well-funded public schools. Grow up in a poor neighborhood? The opposite is true.” In other words, it isn’t necessarily that schools are underfunded everywhere. The United States is a big diverse place. The inequality is high. In 2018 the Gini Index, a measure of income inequality, was 48.2%. A value of 0 on the Gini Index indicates perfect income equality. Extensive research shows that school funding not only varies across and within states but also within districts. Simply put some schools have access to more resources than others.

My young friend believes that this inequity is an intentional move by the elite to keep the masses down. “An uneducated society,” she argued “is easier to control. The elite policymakers pass policy that enriches themselves and their buddies so that those on the lower end of the income spectrum don’t even have a chance. They are defunding opportunity.” She may be right. Although I don’t like to think that inherently all rich people are bad, some clearly don’t care about the masses. Others seem to care, or at least appear to care, but don’t seem to truly understand the problem (see the work of the Gates Foundation’s small schools or Zuckerberg’s failed $100 million experiment in New Jersey for examples). Billionaires across the United States are happy to butt into education with little knowledge or understanding of the challenges (Letting billionaires choose our education policy with their foundations is a discussion for later). Others seem to be blissfully unaware or unwilling to do invest in reducing inequality. The poor, simply put, are not their problem.

Of course, they are. Taxes pay for welfare and school lunches and prisons, to name a few. Yet, if we invested in the future we could spend less on welfare, school lunches and prisons. I am not sure if the rich can’t see that paying a little more in taxes won’t only benefit the bottom 80% but will also benefit them in the long-run. Perhaps as my young friend pointed out, they would prefer to oppress the rest.

The Imaginary Learning Line

I remember learning imaginary numbers back in intermediate Algebra. The concepts of a number that wasn’t real but allowed you to do complex operations was a little strange at the time. Potentially stranger to me is the imaginary line of learning that students “fall behind.”

Summer school and extended school days or years are being thrown around currently as ideas for the lost learning. Policy makers, teachers and researchers can’t stop talking about students “falling behind” from this ill-fated year of distance learning.  Certainly, there is plenty of early evidence that students aren’t learning the same quantity of content or developing skills at the same rate as normal times.  Yet the assumption that the solution is extending the learning time or that there is a line of learning is built on false pretenses.

1. The assumption is that there is a line of learning that occurs each year and that we meet that line.  Our education system has slowly built itself up around this line through standards and testing that gained momentum following the 1983 report A Nation at Risk.  At some point we decided that when you finish third grade you should have skills x, y and z.  Each year has a set of standards, for math and English. We actually have little evidence to date about a “learning slide.” And even if there was one, it’s not exactly normal times. Children have 12 years to learn material that we as a society have deemed important. But really how different are the skills between each year of English. If they graduated high school with 11 years of English instead of 12, would they be non-functional? Sometimes you have to evaluate the purpose of education.

2. Even if you accept that distance learning is largely ineffective, what is the purpose of extending the school year unless students are going to be back in the classroom.  Teachers are largely resistant to returning to campus with students.  While there is significant evidence that it’s safe for students and teachers to be in the classroom, and teachers are being vaccinated, there appears to be no educator willing to open campuses. So are we really asking students to spend the summer sitting inside on zoom for what is largely little gain in learning?  But even if schools do open for summer or extended learning which seems a bleak possibility at this point, what is the purpose? Perhaps we should remember that this has been an especially difficult year for children of all ages. They have been limited from social interactions. They have largely lost extracurricular i.e. fun: dance, sports, music, theater, and more. Publicly funded in-person camps to make up for the poorly managed year, I am all for. More distance learning…count me out!

Sometimes (most of the time) I wonder if the policymakers and educators were ever children or even like them.

What is the purpose of an educated population?

Photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com

I recently had the opportunity to discuss the value of education with a bright college student. She was reading the Horace Mann’s writings for a history course. The students were asked to discuss why you might want an educated population. My young colleague, who grew up always thinking that education is important, was struck by what she thought was an obvious idea. Of course you would want an educated population, she argued, because then you have an educated population. (I respectfully did not point out the circular reasoning in her argument). Yet, as we delved a bit deeper, she discovered that there is more to the question than meets the eye.

To quote Horace Mann, stated the student, “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.” Education is a tool for fighting inequity. It provides an opportunity for individuals to be socially mobile. Fair and equitable education allows individuals to have a chance to do anything.

Futhermore, the student argued that in a democratic society, if you are going to give the populous the power to choose lawmakers and to vote on policy, then it is important that they are educated. In other words they need to understand who they are choosing to lead society. Furthermore, she argued, you need an educated population to understand the choices your representatives are making so that policy is not simply dictated. These are all valid points. Though given the large electorate that repeatedly vote against their own interests, most of whom were educated in our school system, education is either not enough or in this country or is inadequate to create an electorate that understands their leadership. It is clear that misinformation and propaganda can influence even an educated population.

Something to think about is not just an education but the quality and scope of an education. One might forget that the Soviets under Stalin were part of universal education as were the Germans under Hitler. Controlling the education system is an opportunity to control what people think. Furthermore, an educated class can still elect or support a dictator. Germany was highly educated when Hitler was elected.

As recently shown by the Trump administration, education is a broad term under which propaganda can be served up like candy. The 1776 Commission attempted to rewrite history. Highlights of the new history curriculum included equivocating multiculturalism with Nazism and slavery. The American Historical Association summed up the report well in its reaction stating: “The report actually consists of two main themes. One is an homage to the Founding Fathers, a simplistic interpretation that relies on falsehoods, inaccuracies, omissions, and misleading statements. The other is a screed against a half-century of historical scholarship, presented largely as a series of caricatures, using single examples (most notably the “1619 Project”) to represent broader historiographical trends.” Upon taking office President Biden quickly dissolved the commission and essentially tossed the report in the trash. Yet, had Trump been re-elected or the report come at the beginning of his tenure, we may have had the beginnings of a universally educated population that was told that “the Civil Rights Movement was almost immediately turned to programs that ran counter to the lofty ideals of the founders,” and that “a radical women’s liberation movement reimagined America as a patriarchal system.” (Read more in Peter Greene’s analysis of the report here).

So, what is in an education matters, too. Of course, that wasn’t the question that the history professor asked, but it is an important one to consider. The purpose of education has been long debated (the first third of Diane Ravitch’s book Left Back has a solid summary of this debate). We want our population to be educated. An education that prepares us to live in and understand the world is important. Our community members need to not only have a skill but understand, at least to some extent, how to think. In the knowledge economy, in particular, an educated population is more flexible in dealing with changing job needs.

So, yes, of course my young friend was correct. You need an educated population because you want your population to be educated. It can be an equalizer. Education can provide an opportunity. Education can support a democratic society. Why then is it so de-valued in the United States? Look for my thoughts and those of my young friend on this idea in part two.

Free College For All

Photo by Ekrulila on Pexels.com

Policy makers, educators, and researchers have tried and failed to figure out the parameters of making life fair by providing access to college. One of the big barriers to attending college is the soul-crushing cost. Tuition at public universities, while still less expensive for state residents than private institutions, has skyrocketed over the past decade. From 2007 to 2018, tuition increased on average 31% at public universities in the United States(NCES).*

In their original form the land-grant universities were part of Justin Morrill’s “plan for a State university for the industrial classes.” States were granted federal land which they could sell. The proceeds from the sale would be used to fund a public university for the state. Land-grant colleges include the University of California, University of Connecticut, Cornell University, Rutger University and Iowa State University, to name a few.

The land-grant colleges were free when they began in the 1860s. In fact, the idea of free college was written into the university charters. The 1868 charter from the University of California included the following provision: “as soon as the income of the University shall permit, admission and tuition shall be free to all residents of the State.” Yet, the universities are no longer free.

Initially, universities would tack on fees to cover shortfalls from the state funding. Those “fees” grew substantially. In 1960 in-state University of California students paid just $60 a semester in fees. By 2018 those fees, now called tuition, amount to more than $18,000 a year (PPIC). At the University of Connecticut, residents paid $17,226 for the 2020-21 school year; under the tuition plan announced in 2019, the tuition will rise 23.3% over the next 5 years.

The move from tuition free college to tuition charging institutions came as public support for funding them dwindled: ” ‘Public colleges and universities were often free at their founding in the United States, but over time, as public support was reduced or not increased sufficiently to compensate for their growth in students and costs (faculty and staff salaries, utilities etc.), they moved first to a low tuition and eventually higher tuition policy,’ said Cornell University professor Ronald Gordon Ehrenberg.” (Politifact, 2016) Yet, that may be changing. With the rising cost of college and growing levels of student loan debt, support for tuition-free college has grown. A Pew Research poll conducted in January of 2020 found that Democrats (and some Republicans) overwhelmingly favor tuition-free public colleges.

With broad support from the public, it would seem that “free college” would be an obvious win for lawmakers. One challenge from opponents for free college is that those who don’t need a tuition break would still benefit. This is a common argument from lawmakers and opponents to providing any service “to all.” The rich, they argue, can afford to pay for college. Therefore, they shouldn’t benefit from free college, continues the argument.

Generally speaking if you don’t eliminate any one group, policy that benefits all tends to be a win. For example, social security, which was created in 1935 under Franklin D. Roosevelt, provides retirement to income to all legal residents in the United States. The fund is paid into by a tax on wages. At retirement individuals begin to receive social security benefits regardless of individual wealth. In other words, even those who don’t need the money receive it. Medicare created under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty campaign is another example of a public benefit for all. Medicare provides health insurance for everyone in the United States aged 65 years or over. It doesn’t matter your income. If you are over 65, you have health insurance provided by the federal government. To date the United States has been more than happy to provide a public benefit to its elderly population.

Another, fairly obvious example, is K-12 education. Children from high-income families who could afford private school attend public schools across the United States. So, K-12 education is another public benefit for all. Tuition-free college is simply an extension of the education we already provided. Seven of the 36 countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) provide free college. Denmark, Finland, and Ireland are just three of those countries. The fact that the United States, the country with the highest GDP in the world, chooses not to invest in free college is disappointing. College graduates are more likely to be employed and earn more than individuals who have a high school diploma. The long-term economic benefit to the broader community is worth the investment.

*For a comparison of how state funding and tuition has changed by state over the past decade, check out this article from Abigail Johnson Hess.