Next month, Barack Obama will be inaugurated as the forty-fourth president of the United States. The world holds its breath, hoping that Obamas team of the best and brightest, like D.C. Comics Justice League of America, will save the day. If we lived in the best of all possible worlds, Obama will solve the financial crisis, resolve all conflicts in the Middle East and restore this countrys reputation in the world. In addition, he may slay another fearsome beast the rising costs of higher education.
One way Obama hopes to make college a little more affordable is through an initiative he has talked about on the campaign trail, the American Opportunity Tax Credit. This universal tax credit would make the first $4,000 of a college education completely free. In exchange, recipients would be required to do what they should probably do anyway community service. One hundred hours of it. In the best of all possible worlds, the unsightly trash of our communities will be picked up and our children will be educated all thanks to Obamas simple initiative.
As college students, weve been behind another of this years big initiatives the Amethyst Initiative, which supports informed and unimpeded debate on the 21 year-old drinking age. In the spirit of the great grassroots movements of the 60s and 70s, students and underage alcoholics have urged university chancellors and presidents across the country to sign this public statement on the problem of irresponsible drinking. In the best of all possible worlds, the Amethyst Initiative would bring down the drinking age from 21 to 18.
With the exception of the mobilization behind the recent election, the Amethyst Initiative may be one of the biggest things nurtured on the college campus since the anti-war movement of the 1970s. Informed and open public debate on anything is laudable. But as my parents swing back a strong drink, despairing about how to pay next semesters tuition, I cant help but think that we really need an initiative that encourages debate on the way higher education is structured in this country. Even if Obamas plan gets enacted, one hundred hours of community service later, many young people will still be thousands short of paying for their future.
One look across the pond (where, coincidentally, the drinking age is 18) reveals that there is something drastically wrong with U.S. system. In the E.U., you can go to the best schools for much less than their American counterparts. For instance, you may be surprised to hear that Oxford and Cambridge are cheap by American standards. At Oxford, this years undergraduate tuition and fees combined are approximately $9,900 USD (for UK and EU students), plus room and board. On the other hand, take an example of a top U.S. school, say Cornell University. Tuition and fees are $36,500, plus room and board. Thats more than three and a half times as much per year! What is more, since you get your bachelors degree in only three years in the UK, the total cost is outrageously cheaper.
Factor in that you dont need to buy books at Oxford or Cambridge, since the many libraries and reading rooms own multiple copies of everything on your reading list. Compare this with the ethically questionable U.S. practice of forcing students to spend $200 on a book authored by their professor. And, at Oxford and Cambridge at least, the university discourages students from working there is no variant of the U.S. work-study (a.k.a. slave labor); instead, you are supposed to spend your time studying. Such noble aims are not the consequence of enormous endowments: Oxfords endowment weighs in at around $6.4 billion, which is about the same as Cornells and about one-fifth of Harvards.
Perhaps the most compelling transatlantic contrast is the UK governments take on loans: You will not pay nything until after you graduate; the date you start repaying depends on what you earn; and you dont have to pay anything back if you make below a certain income, around $30,000. The way student loans are paid back is also different. After graduation, students repay their loans through the tax system, at 9 percent of gross annual income. What is more, students dont pay any interest (the nominal rate is linked to inflation, so in real terms they repay broadly the same that they borrowed). Compare this to the U.S., where many students have a sundry of student loans from different providers at different rates of usury.
The U.K. contribution scheme is a variant of a graduate tax. A graduate tax has a major advantage in terms of access, since it is not perceived as debt in the same way as a student loan. In particular, if a student is worried that he or she may be in a comparatively low earning job, for instance, if they devote their life to public service, they do not have to worry about making loan payments that they cannot afford.
We havent heard anything like this come out of the Obama camp, or indeed any other candidate on the campaign trail. Maybe we just need some initiative. I think it is a good time for presidents and chancellors of universities to look down from the windows of their Ivory Towers and make a contribution to reforming education policy. Or at least promise us informed and unimpeded debate.
So far, 134 chancellors and presidents have singed onto the Amethyst initiative. But while our chancellors and presidents have decided theyve seen enough underage drinking, so we might as well make it legal drinking, theyve stood by rather idly as college tuition has literally gone through the roof (my education, like that of many others, has already cost more than the value of my parents mortgaged roof). Id like to see presidents and chancellors get together and give Obama a hand in fixing higher education, the ins-and-outs of which they presumably know better than anyone.
In the best of all possible worlds, such an initiative would grant truly equal access to higher education, taking the wealth of ones parents out of the decision to invest in ones future. I think this would be a worthy society to live in. Whether you agree or disagree with the idea of a graduate tax, I think we all agree that we need some informed and unimpeded debate on the matter. Wheres the initiative?