Education is Opportunity

It is time to give free access to local community colleges and state universities to anyone who wants it, because education is opportunity.

In constitutional terms, America must be educated as broadly as possible “In order to form a more perfect union, establish justice … (and) promote the general welfare.” While a high-school diploma once was enough to do that, providing a ticket out of unskilled drudge work, that diploma now needs an upgrade if people are to escape a life of low wages and if our country’s national interest is to be best served. Because education is opportunity.

It is time to unlock the doors so anyone who wants higher education or job training is afforded free access to local community colleges and state universities, thus fueling a new “education boom” that will produce more construction, jobs, wealth and tax revenues — while elevating America to No. 1 in the world in education.

So, in a wealthy nation like ours, which has become the world model for our new chaotic economy, let’s lead the way in providing secure footing for our people by making sure that an infrastructure of free education and training is always in place. If this is the way the new world is going to be, let’s adjust for that world. To do less would be a damnable failure of leadership.

This higher education initiative should not be limited to the pursuit of university degrees. “Higher” education means just that: higher than high school. One of the great things about America is that we are a diverse people with equally diverse career paths. Advanced educational opportunities ought to be as populist as possible, letting people themselves choose what works for them.

We all know some mid-level manager who really wants to teach math, or a house painter who’d like to learn how to be a graphic designer, or a salesclerk who’d like to become an electrician, or an oil-rig worker who’d love to be a barber. Just because you got on a job track at an early age doesn’t mean that’s the best place for you, and you shouldn’t be stuck there. But the expense of getting the skills and accreditation to switch keeps people stuck.

Our society would be enriched and our nation well served by a wide-open system of ongoing educational opportunity as we move through life. Education ought not to be merely a means of economic advancement, but also a pathway for “the pursuit of happiness” — our third inalienable right, and the one that defines America’s grand democratic possibilities.

The naysayers will shriek: “Where are you going to get the money for such a massive public investment?” Get it from where it went: from corporations and the rich, who have long been rigging the economic system and government policies to shift income and wealth from the workaday majority to themselves. Applying a 2% wealth tax on ultra-millionaires (a net worth of $50 million or more) and a 6% wealth tax on billionaires would impact only about 97,000 really, really rich families. This would add $3.75 trillion into our public treasury over 10 years that could fund free higher education and more.

Why be stingy with something so basic and so productive as educational opportunity? Politicos balk at the very idea of investing in the future of ordinary people, lamely saying that we can’t have everything, that money is scarce and we have to make choices. Let’s choose to be stingy about shoveling our hard-earned tax dollars into the corporate coffers and pockets of the ultra-wealthy.

The bottom line on higher education for all is more than economic, for it represents a truly populist vision that embraces the democratic aspirations of America’s workaday majority. It empowers people directly, letting them decide when, where and what advanced education they’ll get. It abandons the elitist notion that higher education is reserved for the top few, instead respecting the dignity of all kinds of educational pursuits.

Enhancing this possibility with free higher education for all is a goal that is worthy of us, and one that should be put at the center of our nation’s public policy debate.

Jim Hightower