According to recent news reports, the per capita college graduation rate in the United States has slipped from first in the world to number twelve. The President says that's a cryin' shame, and that we ought to do something about it. Okay. I agree. But, what should we do?
Since I am an old fart, I am entitled to talk about "the good old days," and you young folks are entitled to ignore me, so I'd better grab your interest pretty fast.
I went to college for free. It wasn't because I was valedictorian of my high school graduating class (not even close), or because my family was particularly disadvantaged (it wasn't). It was because the colleges of the City University of New York did not charge tuition.
Back in the sixties, there was real interest in helping qualified students complete college. Presumably, it had something to do with the Cold War — competing with the Soviet Union — but more than that, it was the FDR-inspired attitudes that emerged from the Great Depression and World War II.
Granted, not everybody was admitted to CUNY, but if you were in New York City's top 25%, it was pretty much automatic. Since the children of the more affluent usually went to private colleges, there usually was a place for you if your grades and SAT scores put you in the top 35%. Most of us couldn't have afforded college if the tuition were much higher than free — credit was a lot harder to get in those days.
We lived with our parents. We traveled by bus and subway. We got part-time and summer jobs to earn some spending money. We graduated with Bachelor's degrees and no debt.
Was it a perfect system? Of course not. Truly poor and minority students, from the city's crappier ghetto high schools, found it hard to make the cut — but for sons and daughters of the lower middle class who had some talent and ambition, it was an amazing opportunity. Our parents looked on with pride as we pulled ourselves up onto the next step of the socio-economic ladder.
So, how did government afford it? America was flushing money down the Vietnam toilet then just as fast as it's flushing money down the Afghanistan toilet today — but our values, in those days, were different. The tax code had not been Reaganized. Middle class incomes and standards of living were still moving upwards, and taxation was not a dirty word. People were willing to share the burdens, and they did. The United States was a lot more egalitarian in those days, despite the discrimination, segregation, and many other problems.
And so, Mr. President, how shall we solve our college graduate deficit? Well, we can't go back to the sixties.
Maybe we can go forward, though. If college really is that important, let's find a way to make it free again.