by Larry Oxenham, publisher


One of the many demands for more from the government, championed most recently by Bernie Sanders, is free college.

They have free college in much of Europe, the thinking goes, so why don’t we have it here?

It is an interesting questions, especially in light of the fact college costs have been skyrocketing for some time, and show no signs of slowing down.

The problem is compounded by the ease with which students can obtain loans – which stay with them long after graduation -, the fact many degrees today have no market value, and the colleges do not seem prepared to train the type of workers needed in coming years. (The loan problem is government generated because students can borrow easily and colleges see it as a never ending source of money.)

Interestingly, the only word we hear bandied about is FREE; never college or student fiscal responsibility. (Come to think of it, if I could make signs, block traffic and march all over and have the credit card companies forgive all my debt, well ….)

Most of us know college costs have risen and continue rising, and most also know the value of the degree has been diminished in many cases. But the reasons for the rise in costs have little to do with teaching:

  • The National Center for Education Statistics, an arm of the federal Department of Education, reported Virginia, Ohio, Oregon, Maine, Indiana and a number of other states — along with the District of Columbia — employ more non-classroom personnel than teachers, some by a wide margin.
  • In Texas the number of students increased by 37 percent from 1992 to 2009, while non-teaching personnel shot up by 172 percent, nearly five times as fast, according to the report.
  • The University of California system spends only about 25% of it’s total budget on curriculum related issues!

And, on a personal level, my daughter is a grammar school teacher who has watched the administration grow so large in her district there is now one administrator for every two teachers.


So, the path to realistic and affordable and real-world education begins with measuring the cost, trimming as appropriate and managing costs year after year.

Unfortunately, with fiscally irresponsible universities answering to fiscally irresponsible politicians, no solution is forthcoming.

Now let’s look at Europe: Most of the countries there offer some form of free education. Not all do, however, as Bernie Sanders should know.

But free is not for everyone. For example, in Germany, you take a test after your sophomore year in high school: if the test determines you are college material you get a free education; if not, you are trained in a trade and will not have a future chance to attend college.

Very small countries like Norway provide free college but have an effective tax rate well in excess of 50%. And Norway also has huge oil reserves that provide a financial foundation for college.

Now, for the sake of argument, let’s say we think free college would be a prudent idea in America; how can we facilitate it and afford it?

Here are some thoughts:

  1. You must revamp the entire university system to bring the cost of administration in line.
  2. You must look at the curriculum and decide which classes are truly applicable in the real, working world.
  3. You must force high schools to return to teaching the basics. The National Assessment of Academic Progress reports only 37% of high school students are academically ready for college. (As one college admissions representative said, “They have been taught self esteem instead of education so they don’t feel bad about not knowing anything!”) Currently, junior colleges and some universities spend a tremendous amount of time and money placing freshmen in classes they should have taken in high school.
  4. You must do something to control the cost of books. Professors force students to use specific books, often because the professor is compensated, and books can run $100’s; a full semester can have book costs exceeding $1000!
  5. Online classes should be expanded, especially for basic courses that will not directly affect the student’s ability to get hired. There is value in taking philosophy or a study of religions, but it won’t help the employer who needs someone to decipher computer code or analyze a business proposition.
  6. You must expect the students to ‘pay’ for their educations with some form of public service. Much of my college was paid for thanks to three years in the Army. Maybe some sort of civil service based on the amount of time you spend in college. The value here would be each student would have a chance to mature and see the real world. Public service could be performed prior to or after college.
  7. There is no reason to have a four year (or five or six year in many cases) path to graduation. If you concentrated only on core classes onsite you could do many courses online, or eliminate them and revamp graduation requirements. Some classes – labs, etc. – must be done onsite so the physical college still has a place. If you could create a three year path to graduation you would knock costs down at least 25%!
  8. College presidents today are largely fund raisers and weak managers, as evidenced by the destructive riots they often condone on their campuses. When they operate as fund raisers their efforts are aimed at pleasing donors and little else. Presidents should be chosen for real world acumen instead of a list of degrees and a lifetime limited to campus or political work.
  9. Partnerships with industry to produce ‘job ready’ candidates in many industries make sense. This is done at some universities and many trade schools, but too many colleges live only in the academic world.
  10. Finally, recognize not everyone wants or needs college. Test, as Germany does, and identify those who would not benefit from college. The working world today needs welders and fabricators and other highly skilled individuals who can learn a trade at one or two year trade school and make great money.

There are more things you can do to graduate students prepared for life in the real world.

For example, push the semester overseas requirements so many employers now look for on a resume.

Ask, before introducing a topic, how this will help the student in his/her post-campus life.

Fire teachers who are clearly not educating; only indoctrinating or missing from class (A main complaint many students have, especially at larger universities, is never seeing the professors and only seeing a graduate assistant – often less than fluent in English – standing at a lectern for a three hour mandated class. Eliminate the class and/or the professor.)

And, finally, look at the overall curriculum and return to teaching something about the country the students live in. Today’s students, in high school and college, are often not required to study civics or learn anything about the history of their country. This is something that amuses people from other countries who wonder why a country as great as America doesn’t seem proud of the system that has been the envy of  the world ….

Maybe by doing all this costs can at least be contained but college should never be completely free because something that is free has little value.

Maybe this is too much to ask for, but it is a start.