Imagine, for a moment, that you are a citizen of the richest nation in the history of the world. Because your nation is so wealthy, you and your fellow citizens can provide the young adults of that nation with the perfect college education. What kind of education would you choose?
One option: have students attend distance learning institutions that offers online classes with very little sense of community or extracurricular activities. In this option, students are responsible for their own living, eating and social arrangements, and most work thirty hours a week in order to survive while they pursue their education. When they graduate, students will owe an average of $30,000 in debt.
Option two: students attend a four-year residential college offering in-person classes and office hours plus a library, gym, intramural teams, a museum, amateur drama and music clubs, dining halls with affordable and healthy food, and residence halls offering a deep sense of community. Students work ten hours per week to help finance their education, but most costs for low-income families are met by institutional endowments and government grants, so students graduate debt-free.
Which of these options would you choose? I pose this question because this is not in any way a hypothetical situation. The United States is the richest nation in the history of the world. When faced with the COVID-19 crisis, we quickly came up with a staggering $2 trillion in relief funding. We have the power to provide and pay for truly great educations for all our young adults. That is not a dream: it is a reality easily within our grasp. If we don’t do so, it is not because we can’t -- it is because we have decided as a society not to do so.
Currently, wealthy students have access to great college educations, while many middle-class and virtually all working-class students do not. That is the choice we are currently making, and it is tragic: economically shortsighted and ethically misguided.