When I studied abroad in Chile, many of my friends — both Chilean students and exchange students from Europe — were absolutely shocked when I told them how exorbitantly expensive American universities are. Even at Ole Miss, a relatively “affordable” four-year public university, tuition is still incredibly expensive — $8,550 in-state, $15,954 out-of-state — compared to other developed nations.
Most of us graduate with a looming mass of student debt over our heads. In fact, more than 44 million Americans owe a collective $1.5 trillion in student debt. The average student who graduated in 2016 owes $37,172. Student loans are just part of process, right? A high school friend’s father gave me the advice to not worry about debt because “the returns on investment are unbeatable.” Shackling ourselves with massive debt has become embedded into our culture like a rite of passage. However, it was not always like this, and it does not have to be like this.
Senators Thad Cochran (Class of ’59), Roger Wicker (Class of ’73) and Representative Trent Kelly (Class of ’88) all attended Ole Miss. When they attended, their tuition was $201 ($1,732 in 2018 dollars), $516 ($2,881), and $1,780 ($3,750) respectively. Accounting for inflation and changes in the value of a dollar, Ole Miss tuition has increased by 761.7 percent since 1959, 458.3 percent since 1973 and 110.7 percent since 1988.
However, in relative terms, the minimum wage has actually slightly decreased in purchasing power by around 16 percent since 1959. This means that young Thad Cochran could have worked just four hours a week at the minimum wage and pay for his college. Wicker and Kelly only needed to work 6.5 and 10.5 hours respectively. If they just wanted to focus on their school work during the semester and only work over the summer and winter breaks, they could have paid for tuition working 11, 18 and 30 hours a week respectively at a minimum wage job during their breaks. A student today would have to work 23-hour weeks year round or 66-hour weeks during the breaks to pay Ole Miss tuition at a minimum wage job. This of course leaves no time to work for textbooks, rent, utilities, food and fun or go to class full time — hence the $1.5 trillion in student debt.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we had tuition free college like many European nations do? The Republican controlled House Budget Committee predicts that over the next 10 years, it would cost taxpayers $70 billion for tuition-free community college and $807 billion for tuition-free public four-year college. This would come out to an average of $87.7 billion in increased spending with a $23.4 billion reduction as the Pell Grant program will no longer be needed. Free college for all Americans would cost roughly $64.3 billion a year.
“But who’s gonna pay for it?”
Roger Wicker recently released a campaign ad about his writing and passing of the “Securing the Homeland by Increasing our Power on the Seas Act” or “SHIPS Act”, which increases our navy from 279 ships to 355 ships. Our current military budget is a whopping $716 billion for 2019. The money is there. We could decrease military spending by only 9 percent, and no American would ever have to pay tuition at a public university ever again.
“But wouldn’t that leave us vulnerable to military threat?”
If we decreased spending to $651.7 billion to pay for higher education, we would still spend more money than the next eight countries combined, five of whom are our close allies.
Our congressmen, both red and blue, who grew up when higher education was achievable without drowning debt, spend our tax dollars to police the world so other countries’ tax dollars can go to education, healthcare and other social programs. Where will we end up as a society if we value fighting the 17-year-long war in Afghanistan over helping our 17-year-old high school students attend university? Without a dramatic shift in priorities, we may win some battles, but we’ll lose the war.
Jacob Gambrell is a senior international studies major from Chattanooga, Tennessee.