One of the reasons Republicans like our new Governor Rick Snyder don’t like people like me is that I am old enough to remember when free college tuition for everyone seemed like an achievable goal.
For those of you too young to know, back in the Sixties, California offered free tuition at all of its excellent public colleges, universities and community colleges. Many of us believed that it was simply a matter of time before we would see free college tuition nationwide.
What happened? Why have we gone in the opposite direction? How has the richest nation on earth become a place where Governor Snyder can seriously propose chopping at least 15% from higher ed in order to give the money instead as tax breaks to business?
A brief history lesson
What happened, of course, was the GOP Reagan Revolution.
At its simplest, the Reagan plan was to lower taxes on corporations and the affluent elite that run them. The mantra is that this produces smaller government – “starving the beast” that provides free public services that the common folk need and enjoy but resent paying for.
Reagan began his road to the presidency when some rich right-wing Republicans in Orange County, California, hired the affluent but none-too-smart star of “Bedtime for Bonzo” to sell the plan to large numbers of the resentful and dim. Even today, a large swath of our population can easily manipulated into believing their failures are caused by big government and those damn liberal elites who are giving all their hard-earned money to “welfare queens.” With that soupcon of race baiting thrown in, Reagan had a winning mix that the Tea Party continues to milk today.
The sad thing is that California was truly on the brink of becoming a modern-day Athens back in the Sixties. In addition to great colleges, the state was making enormous strides in reducing the class size in K-12 education. Californians enjoyed spectacular parks and smooth roads. It was truly the golden state.
The Sixties were also a time when the top corporate tax rate was 52% instead of today’s 35%, and the top individual marginal income tax rate was 70%, though that was still a bargain compared to the 94% charged on incomes above $200,000 during WWII.
According to the GOP logic of today, tax levels like those should have left the economy in a shambles. Didn’t all the rich people move away and take their jobs with them?
If my memory serves, most people lived pretty well and had more leisure time and less stress than they do today. No hordes of homeless people. At least not until President Bill Clinton turned Republican on us and pushed NAFTA and signed welfare reform.
But about that free tuition. One of the first things Reagan did after becoming governor of California in 1970 was get rid of Clark Kerr, who was then the president of the University of California system. That made it easier for Reagan to ram through his plan to abandon free tuition.
Not only did that fulfill the GOP goal of shifting the burden for government services back on the consumers, but it also erodes any hope our educational system will become a meritocracy that allows the best and the brightest a chance at the brass ring of a college degree no matter how much money their family makes.
As the Back Bench notes, Reagan quickly instituted a $600 a year tuition by 1971-1972. At those rates, even the poorest kid could work his way through school or borrow enough to earn that all-important sheepskin, but it was merely the start of the tuition hikes and fees to come.
Using the wonderful online tool called Tom’s Inflation Calculator, we discover that tuition should only be $3,559.30 today, using the same rate. I wish.
As Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in “Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class” in 1989, education is increasingly the key to financial success. The common wisdom is that bachelor’s degree will add roughly $1 million to your income over a lifetime compared to a high-school diploma.
At first blush, free tuition looks like good news for everyone. Instead of a stagnant society where a silversmith like Paul Revere taught his son the trade and handed over the business, awarding opportunities to make money based on education allows kids from all classes a chance at the brass ring if they work hard enough. Who could object to that?
Re-stacking the deck
But a closer look shows that equal opportunity is bad news for rich families. When large numbers of poor kids can afford the tuition at even the best schools, there’s no longer a guarantee that the sons and daughters of the rich will be assured a berth. And if the number of good jobs available after graduation begins to shrink, it becomes even more important for youngsters to have a shot at earning a degree from a school that employers value.
Think of the prototypical rich car dealer in southern California with the none-too-bright son who seems hellbent on majoring in girls and beer. Putting a few bucks in Ronald Reagan’s campaign back then was a wise investment if it meant hard-working Freddy from the low-income family might have to drop out, opening up a slot for Junior.
One way for rich families to ensure their kids have the advantage is to price higher education out of the reach of smart kids from less affluent families. Another surefire trick is to enshrine funding formulas for K-12 education that ensure the smartest kids from poor families end up in dreadful schools that leave them woefully unprepared to compete for the coveted slots in the best college classrooms.
Snyder’s proposed budget also cuts 5% from K-12 education, which is easier for Okemos to make up than the schools in Lansing. While the governor talks a lot about shared sacrifice, the truth is that affluent families are increasingly abandoning the public schools altogether in favor of private schools for their kids.
Rick Snyder’s kids won’t need to worry about going to a good high school or paying off their school debt. But many more of yours will. Where’s the fairness in that?