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Fixing Higher Ed

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The higher education system is so broken. Between skyrocketing tuition and fees leading to massive student debt, a lack of state funding, the proletarianization of faculty including the rise of waves of contingent workers, massive administrative bloat, and an aging population that is no longer being buttressed with the same waves of immigrants and foreign students, a lot of institutions are in real trouble in a world that trusts them less. It needs a serious fix. Bernie Sanders and Pramila Jayapal have a bill for free college tuition that also helps solve the financial problems of the institutions.

While President Biden’s American Families Plan includes a provision for free community college, this is an incomplete solution.

The College for All Act of 2021, introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Pramila Jayapal, would address the crisis in full. In addition to making community college tuition-free for all, it would make two- and four-year public colleges and minority-serving institutions free for poor and middle-class students and increase funding for programs that target students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Nationally, in 2016, the net average price of college attendance (the total cost minus all grants awarded) for students coming from the lowest family income quartile amounted to 94 percent of total family income. Unsurprisingly, poorer students are less present at higher levels of education nationwide. In Connecticut, students of color are overrepresented at the introductory levels and increasingly underrepresented at higher levels.

We stand to exacerbate racial and class divides if we create a dead end for poorer students by cutting off funding at the associate level, stunting their progress or requiring them to take on debt to continue. By including both two- and four-year institutions and by expanding Pell grants so they can be used to cover living and nontuition expenses, the College for All Act would help bridge the significant earning gap between those with some college education and those with bachelor’s degrees.

The measure would also address the labor precarity corroding learning conditions: It would require that at least 75 percent of courses be taught by tenured or tenure-track faculty members and help transition short-term and part-time faculty members to those positions.

To fund these reforms, the bill proposes a tax on trades of stocks, bonds and derivatives, to raise more than $600 billion over the next decade.

The funding issue is a key one. Most schools–not the ones like Harvard and Yale that get all the media attention–are completely reliant on tuition dollars to stay afloat. The state of Rhode Island now funds about 8% of the University of Rhode Island’s budget, down from somewhere around 20% before 2008. Without tuition, there is no URI. So you can’t just create free tuition and expect institutions to survive. They won’t, not unless the funding is replaced. That has to be done by the state. That’s why the stock trade tax is so critical here. It’s not even that high of a tax. There’s certainly no guarantee that better state funding in combination with free tuition will stop administrators from stealing all the money and hiring more adjuncts. But it’s a first and very important step and this is a bill we should definitely support.

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