Welcome to Brown, first-years, and congratulations for making the foresighted decision to invest in your future. By now, you have cracked open a textbook or two, shopped several classes you never plan on taking and made some invaluable connections at Ratty lunch. Every step taken is an opportunity to learn anew and prepare yourself for, dare I say it, life after college, but luckily, by attending Brown — or any college for that matter — you have prepared yourself to be among this nation's most productive citizens.
Unemployment among college graduates is significantly lower than among their high school counterparts, and starting salaries for those with a bachelor's degree are often much higher. A college education may be just about the best thing a young person — or frankly anyone — can get in this country to help insulate himself or herself from the harsh employment market and the prospect of a double-dip recession.
A college-educated citizenry would also benefit the American people as a whole. The more Americans are employed and the more Americans earn, the more taxes the government receives, the smaller the deficit is and the more programs can be funded. With long-term federal deficits on the mind of every politician these days, it is about time the U.S. Congress made college tuition tax-deductible. By making college more affordable today, the government is expanding the tax base of the future.
Too many students work to finance their education just to watch more and more of their money go to Uncle Sam, yet they never get to see a dime of it themselves. Parents, too, are asked to contribute to their children's education, but after income tax, state tax and property tax, what could any but the most affluent parents still have to give? And for the less well-to-do, imagine that paying back student loans were tax-deductible. How much more quickly would graduates, weighed down by hundreds of thousands in debt, be able to get back on their feet and prosper?
A tuition tax deduction would immediately put money in the pockets of millions of American families. It would be the same thing as a second stimulus masquerading as a tax deduction — a would-be cause for both liberals and conservatives to celebrate. With the markets still rattled from the U.S. credit downgrade and the uncertainty abroad, a big infusion of cash into the American economy, coupled with a significant and meaningful investment in education, could just be the big idea to get our economy rolling again.
Universities, for their part, could use any extra revenue generated from the program, since more students could pay full tuition. They could keep vital research, programs and student activities funded in this budget-cutting era. No longer would Brown have to consider which sports teams to cut or how many workers to lay off. This would truly be a win-win scenario.
How would we pay for such a bold endeavor? A back of the napkin estimate is that if 25 percent of tax deductions are lost tax revenue, if the average education is $30,000 per year and if there are 10 million college students, then we are talking about a $75 billion program. That is nothing compared to the exorbitant sums the government already spends. In 2011, the Department of Defense received over $500 billion.
Even if the government just gave out the whole cost of tuition to students and made college free, the approximate total of $300 billion would be less than 10 percent of the whole government budget of $3.7 trillion to be spent next year. Financing a secondary education, the most important tool for success in the 21st century, would far exceed any immediate cost and represents a much better investment in America's future than defense spending or — sadly and unfairly to seniors — Social Security or Medicare.
A free college education is not exactly an innovative idea. In many European countries, college is already free or highly subsidized, and in some countries, like Denmark, students are actually paid to go to college.
A free primary education has been an unshakable hallmark of the American education system for centuries, and yet after investing in students for 13 long years, our country fails to provide the culminating support that would provide the greatest economic security for emerging adults. A high school education is no longer sufficient in the information age. It is time America were as wise as a first-year at Brown and invested in college education. It's a bold idea that just might work.
Ethan Tobias '12 thinks that $300 billion is chump change but paying $3 for a cup of coffee is absurd. He can be reached at Ethan_Tobias@brown.edu.