In 1636, just 16 years after the Pilgrims disembarked at Plymouth Rock, the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony authorized the formation of Harvard College. In 1693 the Virginia House of Burgesses levied a tax on fur and tobacco exports to fund the College of William and Mary, where John Marshall, three of our presidents, and 16 signers of the Declaration of Independence were educated. These colonial legislatures chose to expend limited public funds on the development of institutions of higher education long before public school systems were authorized or governments began to shoulder responsibility for constructing roads, canals and public hospitals. It was understood that future economic prosperity would hinge on the training of engineers, teachers, physicians and other professionals. The merchants and property managers who were paying taxes viewed the provision of this schooling as an obligation owed to succeeding generations.
Between 1609 and the early nineteenth century, nearly 80 percent of white Americans arrived on our shores as the result of some form of debt bondage. The most common was an indentured servitude for a set number of years in which the immigrant’s labor was pledged to defray the cost of the sea journey to the New World. This was usually four or five years but often as many as seven. While some traveled to America as bound apprentices to tradesmen, most were financed by sea captains who sold their cargoes in slave markets as common laborers. A customs officer with the Virginia Company noted in 1619 that these “redemptioners” were frequently treated far worse than slaves, in whom owners held a lifelong financial interest. The practice of indenturd servitude was finally outlawed in 1917.
In 1874, just 25 years after gold was discovered in Cherry Creek, Colorado’s Territorial Legislature approved the creation of three colleges: the School of Mines, the School of Agriculture (now CSU) and the University of Colorado. Public education was so inadequate throughout the territory that each institution was required to operate a preparatory academy. Tuition at both was free for any state resident. The Morill Land Grant Act of 1862 created a network of Agricultural & Mechanical Arts (A&M) colleges across the country. When the act was extended to the former states of the Confederacy in the 1890s, they were required to open equivalent institutions for Negroes, creating the impetus for more than a hundred traditionally black colleges and universities. Higher education was universally acknowledged, as Thomas Jefferson noted upon the founding of the University of Virginia, to be “worthy of public support.”
The first foreign student to graduate from the Colorado School of Mines earned his diploma in 1889. Today a substantial slice of each graduating class in Golden still travels from a foreign country to earn degrees at the number one mining engineering school in the world. The difference between most of them and their American classmates is the fact that their governments are willing to pay their tuition bills. These governments see the value in bringing these students’ skills back home to improve national economies. In contrast, most Colorado students graduate beneath a mountain of debt, which they may or may not be able to pay. Of course, if they are willing to move overseas, it often proves easier to find a high paying job. As public policy, this is just short of lunacy.
Colorado is not alone in strangling funding for higher education as state revenues have declined. The Legislature’s decision to escalate tuition (as much as 250 percent over the last decade), while middle class earnings have been shrinking, places 18-and 19- year-old kids, who we regard as too immature to drink, in the unenviable position of signing student loan agreements that would make them drink if they actually comprehended the debt peonage they are agreeing to. Fiscal charlatans are now promising to ride to their rescue under the rubric of providing a “free college education” in exchange for a promise to return 3 to 5 percent of their earnings for 20 to 25 years following graduation. What a deal! Why not track these indentures with discreet tattoos or, more humanely, electronic ankle bracelets? Educators who should know better are saying we should consider this option.
Have we lost our minds? This is NINJA mortgage lending all over again. Easy access to higher education is an obligation we as parents owe our children, albeit the burden needs to be shared. We should pay without complaint the taxes required to keep a college degree affordable for our high school graduates. That’s not to say there isn’t waste within our Ivy Halls. The recent publication of salaries and pay raises at the University of Colorado was enough to gag a maggot. Yet, these costs are not intrinsically a partisan issue. Solid Republican states like Wyoming and Oklahoma funnel huge wads of cash to their state universities (and organize better football programs). Yes, they enjoy oil and gas severance taxes, but Oklahoma goes so far as to offer special enrichment programs for National Merit Scholars willing to attend from anywhere in the country. Mystifying as it may seem, many of these scholars remain in the state following their graduation. The “free college education” proposal that is being floated is nothing more than another subterfuge to force our kids to pay for what should rightfully be our bill.
It’s bad enough that we’ve transferred responsibility for clearing our massive public debt to future generations, but it’s genuinely appalling that we would expect them to incur huge personal debts on top of that for the privilege of acquiring the education they will need to earn the dollars that will clear our debts. This sounds very much like double jeopardy to me.
Columnist Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and former state representative from northwest Denver.