Friday, January 16, 2015

Free College Education for Iowans?

January 16, 2015, 7:00 a.m.

Will Germany’s Economic Formula Work for Iowa?

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 16, 2015, p. A7

The Iowa Legislature and Board of Regents emphasize college education for Iowans — at least those whose parents can afford the tuition, or graduates accepting debt with their diploma. Others debate pros and cons of extending 12 years of free public education to 14 ("Too Good to Be True? Time will tell on tuition plan," Jan. 14).

Meanwhile, Germany is only the latest country to realize that free higher education for all world citizens promotes economic growth in each of its states ("Länder"). Other countries with similar programs include Brazil, Finland, France, Norway, Slovenia and Sweden. [Photo credit: unknown. The picture is of students taking break from classes at Humboldt-Universität in Berlin. Humboldt is one of the most prestigious universities in Europe, and has educated 29 Nobel Prize winners. Many of these "international universities" offer their free courses in English as well as the native language -- although improving one's foreign language is one of the benefits of study abroad.]

Tennessee is leading the trend in the U.S. with free community college education. Chicago is among the first big cities. President Obama is urging all states to follow.

As an educator, I'd like to believe this movement reflects a simultaneous epiphany among the world's public officials regarding the many values of a liberal arts education. Have they at last come to see that quality education, like universal single-payer healthcare, is a basic human right (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Arts. 25 and 26)?

Alas, that's not the case. Providing free college education to all, like the free food samples at Costco, is just good business.

Germany is part of a global economy. The more world citizens with German ties, the more the Länders' economies grow. It's true whether students from abroad stay, or return home with networks of German contacts. It's equally true of German students otherwise without access to higher education. The German economy benefits when they stay; it benefits when they study abroad, stay, and do business from there.

Iowa, unlike Germany, does not grasp this simple truth. Our leaders believe if Washington can pay for a war with tax cuts, Iowa can create prosperity with tax cuts. Both Washington and Des Moines are in desperate need of remedial math.

Iowa Workforce Development has warned of our challenge "to overcome a skills gap." We don't have a shortage of jobs, we have a shortage of middle and higher skilled workers. Our state universities don't have too many students from abroad and out of state, we have too few. Too few Iowans who have studied abroad and stayed there to help develop markets for Iowa products. Too few from abroad who have studied here and stayed here — or gone back home with ties to Iowa businesses. [Photo credit: UI College of Education. The picture is of Iowa students taking a break from classes on the University of Iowa's Pentacrest.]

This is not rocket science. There's data. There's history. America and Iowa enjoyed an economic boom during the 1950s. Major contributors were the 2.2 million returning veterans of World War II who received a free college education under the GI Bill. California's growth from a destination for Dust Bowl immigrants in the 1930s to one of the world's 10 largest economic powers in the 1960s is directly linked to its deliberate economic policy of free higher education. New York is, in part, a similar story.

Iowa can't gamble its way to prosperity. It can't build a growing economy on tax cuts. It can't sustain economic growth by bribing fickle out-of-state businesses to locate here.

What it can do is look to the history of the World War II GI Bill, and the growth of California. What it can do is try to understand the rationale behind Germany's policy of free education for all. What it can do is, like President Obama, follow a progressive state like Tennessee and city like Chicago.

Will it work for us? Let's think it through.

It would require the uncommon political courage of deferred gratification: putting Iowa's long-term economic growth above Iowans' short-term economic greed. And, yes, it requires a willingness to raise and invest taxes. But that educational investment could prove to be much more profitable than using taxpayers' money to bribe out-of-state corporations or as paybacks to major campaign contributors.
Nicholas Johnson of Iowa City, a former FCC commissioner, maintains and


Note: This column/blog entry produced a number of comments elsewhere -- sometimes including my own. They are reproduced below.


From a former Iowa City City Council member, via email and with permission:

Hello Nick: About your opinion piece in today's Press-Citizen.....I could hardly agree more. As far back as the 1950s when I was in school, the informed philosophy was that a college education was of benefit to far more than just the individual earning the degree.

Shannon Janes, a long time friend and former colleague of mine at ACT, is one of the brightest people I know. In the 1970s he was promoting higher education being a logical extension of public education. Thus, the present increasing conversions and proposed conversions in higher education/postsecondary education isn't something new to me.

I hadn't previously thought of your illustration that the post-World War II vets' access to the GI Bill does reflect well on the nearly global benefits of postsecondary education.

Do you know if any citizen efforts are developing for expressing strong support for extending K-12 to at least K-14?

Again, thanks for the interesting and most informative opinion piece.

Bob Elliott

Iowa City Press-Citizen Online Version Comments

Ed Flaherty · Iowa City, Iowa
As usual from Nick, excellent. We must change our investment policies. If we value private accumulation of wealth more than the health of our planet and of future generations, we lose our humanity and moral compass. January 15 at 9:10am

Rudolf Schmidt · Top Commenter · University of Iowa
The trouble with "free college for all" is the same problem that we have with "easy credit for college" in that we matriculate a lot of people who don't finish, and those who do finish end up with a generally worthless degree and tens of thousands of dollars in debt because of poor advice and poor planning.

Not everybody needs to or should go to college or university, but the main view is that everybody should go. Why is that? Why can't we talk about dropout rates and how young people who can't legally buy a beer are suddenly entrusted to sign away the next 20 or 30 years of their life to the government for loan payment on questionable majors? January 15 at 2:36pm

Nicholas Johnson · Top Commenter
Rudolf Schmidt:

Thank you for reading the column and posting your comment.

We mostly agree; but I'd like to draw some distinctions.

Whether free or high tuition, I agree that "not everyone needs to go to college." I suspect there are those who don't need to go to community college either -- though I'd guess a much larger percentage would benefit from the additional two years.

I also agree about the downsides of students graduating with very substantial debt -- that is but one of the reasons I'm advocating free college.

And, whether free or tuition-funded, I also agree that we could probably do a better job with admission standards that produce lower dropout rates. (However, I suspect that there will always be some students who wouldn't meet the standards who would do well if given a chance -- for, say, a limited six-week, or one semester, opportunity to show what they can do before being denied the opportunity.)

-- Nick January 16 at 7:55am

Holly Hart · Top Commenter · Works at Iowa Shares
Skills shortage? Then why is it impossible to get the training for what the state claims is needed? And why do they call :skills" things like working with Microsoft office? We have a job shortage, period. January 16 at 1:58pm

Sam Osborne · Top Commenter
A good education is not worthless to one that gets one. And, our institutions of higher education should be something other than machine shops the mill subtends into interchangeable parts to fit into the profit making efforts of others.

The supposed dropout out problem of a student leaving school prior to graduation can be done away with by simply referencing the student leaving as are other such changes---as a worker finding new opportunity, a former golfer having taken up fishing, a CEO stepping down and into retirement, a professional athlete wrapping up his career and any of us exiting into well earned retirements.

Free education is as good of an investment as is all of the money spent propping up moneychanger capitalism that is leaving this and soon coming generations of young people the red ink of debt that should have been a warning check mark against the elders who were not smart enough to avoid their own failing. January 17 at 10:07am

Rick Whitten · Top Commenter · Information Technology Specialist at State of Iowa
Nicholas: Long term thinking?? That sounds almost, um, conservative!

Facebook Comments

Note: The column/blog entry produced a lengthy exchange on Facebook. It is too long to format and reproduce here -- at least this morning. My response toward the beginning of the exchange provides a sense of what it was about.

Nicholas Johnson

Chuck Schmidt and Steve Hanken: I very much welcome your spirited exchange. That was my goal with the op ed column in this morning's [Jan. 16] Press-Citizen.

Germany and other countries are not offering free college education to every potential entering student in the world because it's a nice thing to do. They, like California years ago (prior to becoming the 7th largest economic entity in the world), are doing it because they find it promotes their economic growth faster and farther than other investments. Tennessee is doing it for the same reason with its community colleges, and the President thinks other states should follow their example.

I'm just suggesting we, and our elected representatives in Des Moines, ought to at least think about it, and the rationale of Germany, and others, for doing it. We should either do it, too, or come up with some very darn good reasons why it only works for other countries and states but not for Iowa.

It seems to me from your exchange that much of your difference derives from an unarticulated distinction between "expense" and "investment." Which is the "cheaper," or the "better buy," for an Iowa farmer: A $95,000 Tesla automobile, or a $150,000 John Deere tractor? Both are a "cost." But they are not both an "expense" (as I'm drawing the distinction). The Tesla is an expense. The tractor is an investment. Eisenhower's Interstate Highway system was an investment, not an "expense." The U.S. universal free K-12 public education systems in 15,000 school districts represent investments. So will be free 14 years of education instead of 12 (community college). And so, Germany believes, is its states' investment in free higher education.

-- Nick
January 16 at 10:42am

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kurt said...

Be careful about using the term, "basic human right". To me, that term means that you have a right to take my property in order to fulfill that right. Basic human rights should only be what is referred to as "negative" rights: rights that I have that require no action on the part of others and that do not infringe on the same rights of others. Some basic human rights are stated in the Bill of Rights of our Constitution: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, etc. As a society, we may wish to provide certain benefits because of our affluence, but not because they are basic human rights. Kurt Johnson.

Nick said...


You and I are, of course, like Humpty Dumpty in Alice and Wonderland, free to say, "When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean-—neither more nor less."

The meaning you have chosen I find a perfectly reasonable option, and once it is so defined a meaningful exchange can occur based on that meaning.

The one I chose is, I believe, the one with the greatest global agreement (kind of by definition) as it is the product of the members of the United Nations.

United Nations, "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights," Article 26 (1) "Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit."

-- Nick

kurt said...

Nick, point well taken. Call it what we will, I believe that no one, including governments or majorities, should be able to use force against peaceful people who do no harm to others. Force would include taking justly obtained property. People should be left on their own to make charitable decisions - and we in the U.S. do a pretty good job of that. I believe that true charitable giving is more effective than taxpayer supported government programs because closer connection between the givers and receivers.


Nick said...

Notice Regarding Advertising: This blog runs an open comments section. All comments related to the content of blog entries have (so far) remained posted, regardless of how critical. Although I would prefer that those posting comments identify themselves, anonymous comments are also accepted.

The only limitation is that comments unrelated to the essay, such as advertising posing as comments, or with links to unrelated sites, will be removed. That is why one or more of the comments posted on this blog entry are no longer here.

-- Nick

Bigwas said...

great...the Philippines now grant free college education at all government universities and colleges...But where will the government source the money for this?...increase taxes...