University of California AFT president Robert Samuels explains it is possible to provide free college education to all U.S. students, and as a consequence solve the student debt problem and the rising costs of tuition
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
College students across the country continue to face escalating tuition costs and skyrocketing debt. Meanwhile, some have opposed free higher education to help combat this.
Now joining us to discuss this is Bob Samuels. He’s the president of the UC-AFT, the union representing 4,000 librarians and lecturers [non-tenured faculty] in the University of California public university system. He teaches writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Author of seven books, including Why Public Higher Education Should Be Free.
Thank you so much for joining us.
ROBERT SAMUELS, PRESIDENT, UC-AFT: Thank you.
NOOR: So let’s start off by getting your take about why tuition costs are escalating so much. And that’s resulted in students straddled with an enormous amount of debt. I think a recent estimate put it at above $1 trillion across the country.
SAMUELS: Well, there are several factors. One is that states have been cutting their funding for higher education institutions. And also higher education institutions have taken on many different functions. They have medical schools. They run hospitals. They run athletic departments. And so there’s many contributing factors to the situation.
It’s also whenever the state cuts the budget for the universities, the universities know that they can turn around and raise the tuition on the students. And one reason why they know that is because they know the students can take out loans or get other forms of financial aid.
NOOR: And so in your book, you kind of note this number, going back to the fact that universities do a lot more stuff than just education: you write that as little as 10 percent of university budgets are spent on directly educating students. Most people would be shocked to hear that, especially in the face of these rising tuition costs. Can you talk a little bit more about this?
SAMUELS: Well, I’m talking about research universities there, and research universities perform many different functions. They have graduate education. They have law schools, medical schools, professional education. They have gigantic research facilities. They have large athletic programs and departments. They have many different services they offer students and the local community.
And so one of the things that I try to show is that as universities have expanded, they’ve taken on more and more functions, which creates a need for more and more administration, more and more staff. And it just kind of spirals out of control.
NOOR: And so, to address this issue you argue for free higher public education for all high school graduates. Explain how you would accomplish this and what impact it would make on America.
SAMUELS: Well, there’s a few different aspects to my proposal. One is I point out that we’re already spending enough money to make it free. I’m not advocating raising taxes or having the government spend much more money on higher education. I’m saying instead of spending a lot of money on for-profit colleges that have very few graduates, and instead of giving tax breaks to the super-wealthy that go to higher education, we should basically fund directly universities and colleges, public institutions, and then require that they spend a certain amount of that money on direct instructional costs. And so instead of just giving a blank check to the universities and colleges, the federal government should make certain requirements, for instance that only a certain number of classes should be large classes. They should control, like, how many of the faculty are full-time faculty. And they should basically have a minimum requirement of the university spending at least 50 percent of their state and federal funding on direct instructional costs.
And this would allow students to graduate faster because there would be more classes. It would make education more effective because there would be smaller classes.
And the universities have the resources to do this. Just currently they’re spending money on other things.
NOOR: And so if you did expand public education, made it free, obviously a lot more people would want to go to college. How would you deal with that? Would you, for example, make more universities? Or would you have a merit-based system to get into college?
SAMUELS: I think we would still have competitive enrollment. I think we would be able to graduate and educate many more students at the same cost, because right now the current overall graduation rate for community colleges and public universities is something like 40 percent. So if we could raise that to 60, 70, 80 percent, then we could actually just use the current facilities and the current resources, just in a more efficient manner, because one reason why students don’t graduate or don’t graduate on time is because they go into debt and they have to drop out, or they’re spending a lot of time while they’re in school working in order to pay for the high cost of tuition and related expenses.
NOOR: And so how would you respond to arguments that, you know, people might make? For example, if you don’t have kids, then you’re subsidizing the education of people that aren’t really going to benefit you in any way.
SAMUELS: Well, I’m not talking about raising the taxes on anyone. I’m talking about changing some of the tax breaks, some of the tax deductions that go to people who send their kids to college.
What a lot of people don’t know is that there’s a bunch of different tax breaks that have been used primarily by the super-wealthy as tax shelters. And there’s something called a 529 college plan, and those ones are really a way of the wealthy to shelter their investment revenue from taxes.
And so I’m not asking people to make an increased sacrifice. It’s very hard for people to accept this. I’m saying, let’s just use the money we currently have in a more efficient manner.
NOOR: And, you know, there have been protests all over the country. I reported on some of that in New York, and now in California it’s been widespread. What’s it going to take for this system to change to make this–for example, to adapt a policy like you are proposing?
SAMUELS: Well, I think we have to work with different groups–student groups, parent groups, teacher unions, a wide range of groups–and really have a social movement about this.
But the reason why I think it’s going to happen is because the student debt problem is so bad. It’s not only that there’s $1 trillion of outstanding student loan debt, but a lot of times these students, when they go to look for a job, they can’t get a job, because they have a bad credit rating because of their defaulted loans or delayed payments on loans. And once the students graduate, they often graduate with–the average is $26,000 of debt. But once they start missing payments, that can quickly go up to $50,000, $60,000. And so we’re going to have a gigantic crisis. We’ll have a generation of students graduating–or not graduating–with tremendous levels of debt and who are going to be unable to get jobs.
NOOR: And lastly, people might be surprised to know that America’s one of the few industrial countries that doesn’t already offer free higher public education. Talk about a model that works around the world.
SAMUELS: Well, I mean, we have models throughout Europe. We used to have in many states free public higher education, or close to free. In California we didn’t charge tuition until relatively recently. And the same problem existed with high school. We used to have very few people in high school, and then we made high school a public institution. And Finland’s been a very successful system where they have free public higher education, throughout Scandinavia, throughout most of Europe, and through certain Asian and South American countries. So there’s a lot of countries that do this, and it makes sense for them economically and socially to have more prepared people in their economy.
NOOR: Bob Samuels, this wraps up the first part of our conversation. Thank you so much for joining us.
SAMUELS: Thank you.
NOOR: We’re going to continue this conversation in part two. You can check it out at TheRealNews.com.
Thank you so much for joining us.