A tuition-free college education is obviously not a politically viable idea in Iowa at this time. The state's ideologically-driven Republican governor and House of Representatives are focused on cutting taxes while providing financial incentives for business, and privatizing historic governmental functions. The Board of Regents has selected a president for the University of Iowa with a business background whom they hope can "run the University more like a business" while cutting its share of state funding even further.
But that doesn't mean there's no point in thinking about the idea, or that it would have no political support.
For starters, we're talking about Iowa's 15 community colleges as well as its three Regents' universities. Indeed, a stronger case can be made for the former than the latter. It costs less to add two years to our K-12 system than to add four. And the benefits might even be greater. As former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare John W. Gardner wrote in his little book, Excellence (1961), “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”
Surely families that would like to send their children to college, but cannot afford the tuition, would support such a program -- especially if the child in question would become the first in the family to do so. Iowa's rural communities would have access to more and better trained trades people, entrepreneurs, members of Richard Florida's "creative class," and others necessary to the communities' sustainable growth and quality of life. (See, e.g., James Fallows, "How America is Putting Itself Back Together," The Atlantic, March 2016.)
Tuition-free college and community college would benefit all Iowans, not just some college bound wealthy elite.
Admittedly, many of the reasons to provide tuition-free college involve values other than economic -- of which more later. But what arguments might be fashioned to appeal to those who, as the saying has it, "know the price of everything and the value of nothing"?
Presumably those countries have some data indicating an economic justification for these arrangements. The economic impact of New York's CUNY and SUNY institutions, and California's 1960-1975 "Master Plan for Higher Education" would also be worth exploring. ("The two governing boards reaffirm the long established principle that state colleges and the University of California shall be tuition free to all residents of the state.")
"Tuition-free" is not "free." Academically qualified high school graduates who cannot afford the costs of board and room, books, and the loss of what would otherwise have been earned over four years, will still be denied higher education. But those who can and do pursue more education will be able to generate more income for their employers, and themselves. Not only will they boost Iowa's economy by spending more as consumers, they will also be contributing the purchasing immediately made possible by the absence of years of paying off student loans' principal and interest.
What if the data does show that the return on this investment of public funds, in the form of jobs and profits, turns out to be many multiples of its cost? Would there be a point at which even the tax-cutting naysayers might see a proposal for tuition-free college in the way they now view the creation and maintenance of the interstate highway system?
It's important to note the distinction between (a) funding a entirely new program, and (b) an incremental increase in funding a preexisting program. To provide tuition-free college and community college education for Iowans would not be the first time public money would be used to educate the state's people. Iowa had its first one-room school in 1830, and by 1910 was one of the first states to have a statewide system of high schools.
There is not unanimous support for public education; some parents prefer private schools, or home schooling. But for some 250 years in the United States (and in other countries as well) there has been near-unanimous recognition of (a) the citizen's right to education, and (b) the desirability of, indeed society's need for, an educated citizenry. Soon the requirement was not only for citizens' access to free public education, but for their compulsory education. The 1966 "International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights" expressed the right this way: "Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education. . .." Article 13 (2)(c).
This presidential election year has brought tuition-free higher education into the national discussion of public policy, such as it is. It's one of Senator Bernie Sanders' main talking points. Secretary Hillary Clinton, by contrast, advocates a more needs-based system. So far as I am aware, there has seldom if ever been an argument that free primary and secondary education should be limited to families in financial need, with all other parents paying full cost. If a distinction is to be made for higher education a persuasive rationale for doing so should be provided. (The one exception involves, not tuition, but the fee for a student's lunch. Those able to do so pay the cost of the meal; students of lesser means receive lunch for free, or at reduced cost -- a program subsidized by federal taxpayers.)
While there is squabbling over precise amounts, there is a clear majority that generally accepts that the societal benefits of free K-12 education exceed its cost to taxpayers. Counting Iowa's primary and secondary schools sources of federal, state, and local revenue, Iowa's approximately 350 school districts receive a total of about $6 billion a year of taxpayers' money. (Extrapolating to America's 50 million school age children, the national commitment would be on the order of $500 billion, or one-half trillion dollars a year).
To these numbers we would need to add what the three Regents' universities are already receiving: federal, state and local financial support in the billions (federal research projects and Pell grants; state appropriations; and local counties' inability to collect property taxes from the universities' tax-exempt property).
The point? While the cost of providing Iowans a tuition-free college education is not insignificant, the largest financial commitment to public education already exists. Tuition-free college merely adds two or four years to the 13 years of education we're already funding for K-12.
Economists called upon to do benefit-cost analyses of, say, public parks, may calculate the economic "benefits" by totaling what users are willing to spend in the per-mile costs of driving to and from the park. Most of us (including some of those economists) would argue that such calculations are almost worthless. What is the "value" to a family of a day at the beach, public library, or touring some of the Smithsonian's buildings in Washington? What mother, father, or child would measure the value of a day's conversations while fishing -- with or without a catch -- by the cost of the fishing tackle and bait?
So it is with education. It has economic value, for the society and the individual, as discussed above. But it has so much more. The before and after impact it can have on every moment of one's life is like the difference between watching a TV soap opera on an old small screen black-and-white TV, and being able to understand and enjoy a classic drama, or symphony orchestra (or NFL game) on a high definition, color, big wall screen. Intuitively (and with some supporting data) proportionately more of those with more education are likely to be healthier, happier, wiser investors, more effective parents, and otherwise get more out of day-to-day living than those with less.
From the beginning of America's public education, one of the perceived needs and driving purposes has been to prepare students for participation -- with information, intelligence, civility, morality, and a sense of responsibility -- as citizens in a self-governing democracy. That need is, if anything, even greater today than 250 years ago.
These non-monetary values are reflected in the United Nation's 1948 "Universal Declaration of Human Rights," Article 26. Like the "International Covenant," above, it declares that "(1) Everyone has the right to education. . . . [H]igher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit." But it goes on to explain that, "(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms."
Many would find these non-monetary benefits of tuition-free education as persuasive a reason for funding higher education as for primary and secondary education -- and certainly so when added to the economic benefits.
So, is there a conclusion after all? Not yet. However, it is my opinion that the case can be made that adding two to four years of additional education to our publicly-funded K-12 system -- updating it, as it were, from the high school requirements of an agricultural and industrial age over 100 years ago -- is well worth our exploring further.
As has been said, "When the people will lead, their leaders will follow." Regardless of the ideological orientation of Iowa's elected officials, the first step will have to be something on the order of Bernie Sanders' "political revolution." The people of Iowa will need to care, to study these issues, make higher education a priority, organize, demonstrate, and demand the benefits that tuition-free higher education has to offer for all Iowans.