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Free Tuition at Community College Should Just Be the Start

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

It's good that many Republicans have joined Democrats in declaring the growth of economic inequality a problem. And some are even looking to solutions beyond making the rich richer through tax cuts. As we've seen, rising stock prices do not necessarily lead to jobs -- for Americans, that is.   

The crumbling of the once-mighty American middle class has two unstoppable causes, globalization and automation, and one stoppable one, a poorly educated workforce. A high-school diploma no longer guarantees a decent income. That's something we can fix.   

President Obama's proposal for a free community college education is a good start. Two-year colleges are the gateway to more job training or a four-year college degree.  

Let's dispense with defeatist talk that we can't afford to educate our people. Obama's plan is to pay for the schooling with higher taxes on America's economic elite. It wouldn't even bother with the upper middle class, just the super-rich.   

Do we hate the super-rich? We do not. We can thank them as they contribute more to the country that made their fortunes possible.   

Some less visionary Republican leaders have framed the proposal as an income redistribution plan. But the money would be redirected not from the rich to the non-rich but from the very rich to education. A more productive labor force makes the entire country more prosperous.  

Not everyone gets this. There remains a view of education chiefly as an expense rather than an investment in human capital.  

An example can be seen in the House Republicans' recent bill calling for "dynamic scoring" of legislation. It would require the official bean counters to include the economic benefits of tax cuts in scoring the cost of legislation. That would make tax cuts easier to pass.   

The idea of "dynamic scoring" is not without merit, but the House's vision has eyes only for tax cuts. Spending on things like roads and bridges also produces economic benefits. So does improving the workforce. Universal education is what made America great in the 20th century.   

Some Republicans, especially on the state level, seem more enlightened on the importance of education as an investment in the future. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval has proposed a $1 billion tax increase to strengthen the state's schools. Some fellow Republicans in the state Legislature think the conservative thing is to kill it and have vowed to do so.  

In successful advanced economies, such as Germany's, education is free right through med school. Here education has become a luxury item. It's nuts that U.S. student debt has passed $1 trillion and that undergraduates who borrow for school now owe an average of $30,000. Nearly 20 percent are in default on their student loans.   

True, many students arrive at community college without the math they should have learned in fifth grade. Why? Lousy public schools? Chaotic home life? Newly arrived with little English   

Never mind why. Set up a classroom and teach them the math again -- and, if necessary, again. For education, America should be the land of second chances, third chances and fourth chances.   

As for the ages of those in the classroom, forget about that. Young to elderly, all should be welcome. And the learning should be free or just about.

Online classes already provide cheap and convenient instruction in almost every discipline. Perhaps Internet-based courses can break open the cages in which elite institutions trap students in ludicrously expensive degree programs.   

Meanwhile, fight any effort to direct student aid at poor people only. Education should be regarded not as welfare but as basic, like water. So open the spigots, and let it flow.  

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

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