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Education should be free in a free society

Americans would be well advised to heed presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders’ call to make public college education free.

A college degree is so important to getting a decent job these days, we must begin to see higher education as a right. Some Americans pursue a college diploma; others don’t. But making sure that the option is available to everyone, even those whose parents are hard-pressed to pay for it, is necessary to preserving a free society.

“It is totally unacceptable that Americans are drowning in $1.2 trillion in student loan debt,” says Sanders. “It is unacceptable that millions of college graduates cannot afford to buy their first home or their first car because of the outrageously high interest rates they are paying on student debt.”

Sanders’ plan uses federal funds to eliminate state tuitions, while drastically reducing interest rates on student loans for private colleges and universities. It will cost the federal government an estimated $70 billion per year. That sounds expensive. But, in fact, the country can easily raise the funds by taxing Wall Street stocks and derivative transactions. The proposal, called a “Robin Hood” tax, has been supported by several leading economists.

The most vociferous opposition to the plan comes from right-wing politicians, who have already caused so much damage to college students. It’s been too little publicized that House Republicans voted recently to curtail federal student financial aid programs, even proposing to freeze student Pell Grants.

These House members are divorced from the reality a lot of young people face. The financial barriers to attending college are higher than ever. It’s uncertain how many potential students don’t go to college because of the cost. We do know, however, that college enrollment has declined by approximately 1 million since 2011. Eliminating public college tuition could reverse the trend.

We also know that while a decade ago student debt totaled $300 billion, today it has risen to more than $1 trillion. The average debt of a student is $30,000. In 2013, 42 percent of black students carried loan debt, compared to only 28 percent of whites. The trap exacerbates the wealth gap between races.

But debt leads to unnecessary financial stress on all young graduates. Many have to take a second, usually low-paying, job to make ends meet.

And young people in debt have less money to invest. Studies have shown that heavy student debt leads fewer graduates to risk starting their own small businesses. They are also much more likely to put off for many years big purchases like a new car or a home. The debt trap is sapping America of its entrepreneurial spirit and preventing college graduates from joining the middle class.

Many students who take on crushing debt as the price of a college degree experience immense pressure to “make it pay” and earn a degree in a lucrative field. A healthy society cannot only educate MBAs. Eliminating college tuition would inspire more students to go to school to contribute to society as teachers, historians, researchers or employees in the nonprofit sector.

Student debt is a shackle encumbering our society. It’s time to begin discussing ways to remove this shackle and allow more young people a chance to achieve their potential. Sanders’ proposal is a welcome addition to the discussion.

The writer lives is a a poet and critic living in Santa Fe, N.M. and can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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