The Electoral Process and the Future of Higher Education in the US, by Dr. Priscilla Gac-Artigas

Recently in the White House Rose Garden--a place traditionally used by presidents to meet the press, receive distinguished visitors and make public policy announcements--Vice President Joe Biden announced to the Nation that he would not run for president.

Nevertheless, his speech was a presidential speech with substantive content. One of the issues he addressed that struck us the most was his proposal for free higher education as a mechanism for reducing the enormous and growing social inequality in the country while ensuring economic growth. Vice President Biden thus highlighted the need to reform an unfair educational system, a system that deepens inequities by denying the students from disadvantaged sectors the opportunity to pursue a college degree.

He reminded us that 100 years ago the U.S. established by law 12 years of free public education. He went on to add that nowadays 12 years was not enough and that it is time to offer 16 years of free public education, that is to make the first four years of college at public institutions tuition free. By doing so, he joined voices with two other Democratic candidates, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Sanders included in his program free education as a universal right while Hillary Clinton presented an affordable higher education plan that includes grants to states that guarantee public university students can graduate without loans, tuition assistance in exchange for national service, income-based repayment plans and refinancing at current rates for recent graduates.

What are the implications of this situation?

A change has occurred in American politics, and the right to free public higher education is now a part of the public debate. 

After returning from my experience as a Fulbright Scholar in Chile a year ago (where I worked with professors and students on strategies to develop critical thinking through the improvement of writing skills), Congress was in the thick of discussions about free access to higher education. I couldn’t help but think about the similarities and differences between what happened in Chile and the challenges that free education would impose on public and private institutions in the United States.

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In Chile, the idea of education as a right and, therefore, an obligation of the State to secure its gratu-ity was imposed by the masses--the students--who occupied the streets, schools and universities to advance this proposal. Therefore, what at first seemed a dream, a utopia for the few, finally reached hundreds of thousands of students, parents and teachers who marched through the streets of Chile and progressively dominated the political debate.

Little by little politicians of all currents adhered to the idea, and the debate moved on to planning the steps needed to implement and finance it. This led to the approval of tax reform to secure funding and implement a law that gradually reached total tuition-free higher education. Today, no one in Chile questions the universal right to free quality education, and starting next year, the most vulnerable students will study tuition free at Chilean public universities as well as private non-profit institutions that meet accreditation criteria.

In the United States, the process begins backward, from the top down. Considering recent history, it is clear that the debate does not emerge from the student body or in the classrooms or the streets; the discussion has been broached by a handful of politicians as part of an electoral process that has proved to be anything but conventional.

The first one to bring up the issue was Bernie Sanders, Democrat candidate, who as a self-described “democratic socialist” presents a campaign program that mirrors policies in social-democratic European countries. Among other subjects, these policies concern issues of income and social inequality, universal education and healthcare, parental leave and LGBTQ population rights. Sander’s perspective was echoed by Vice President Biden with some nuances by Hillary Clinton. We are convinced that thanks to the electoral process, the discussion will continue and eventually lead us in the same direction as in Chile. The timeframe of the process is unpredictable, though, but so it also was in that southern country years ago.
  Therefore, both public and private institutions in the U.S. have to prepare for this challenge in order to handle an imminent change in the composition of their student bodies in order to define or redefine their institutional missions and to deal with the inevitable competition that will arise between the public tuition-free institutions and the private tuition-paid ones to attract and retain the finest students.

What would it imply for public universities to be tuition-free?

Public universities will have to confront the challenge of adapting and expanding to continue providing a quality education to a growing student population. They have to find and secure the means to meet enormous demand in order to maintain a diverse student body. With existing space constraints, public universities run the risk of over-representing high-performers from wealthy school districts who would have otherwise attended private institutions. Public universities have to secure the means to offer underprepared students from underprivileged neighborhoods the tools and infrastructure to be successful in college so to avoid the kind of deception and exodus of low-income freshmen that we have seen in other countries, Argentina among them where higher education is not only tuition free; there is no admission selection process in place. In brief, universities have to be ready to guarantee a quality education by providing faculty the time and the means to do research and innovate within their fields and to bring these findings into the classrooms and eventually, through their students, share them with society as a whole.

Private universities will have to ponder about their future as well.

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The most prestigious ones, national and international, will be less affected. Their competitiveness will continue residing in the exceptional quality of their education and in the other advantages conferred by their degrees: prestige, networking, access to money and power, etc. Most of these elite universities have the financial means to maintain through outreach and scholarships a diverse population of top-performing students thus guaranteeing a rewarding and transformative college experience for all members of the college community.

The other private universities will have to strive to establish or maintain a reputation that allows them to convince parents and students of the advantages of choosing them over comparable public tuition-free institutions. And those advantages will have to rely on offering an education of quality that prepares students for a successful and fulfilling life after college in a globalized world; on the distinctiveness and applicability of their programs; on the quality, leadership and recognition of their faculty beyond regional borders; on the affordability and the scholarships that may be offered to ensure diversity as well as retention of students to avoid the exodus towards public universities of similar prestige; on the research produced; on the relationship of tuition cost and salary compensation and on its relationship to its surrounding community.

Thus, their future will depend on how effective they will be in transforming the lives of their students by making college an enriching experience pedagogically, culturally and socially that also leads to competitive salaries after graduation.

Private universities’ future will depend on overcoming the fear of disappearing, the fear of competition and the fear of change. As stated by Dr. Paul Brown, President of Monmouth University (a private regional institution in New Jersey): “A multitude of factors are putting higher education at a critical crossroads, and how the university chooses to har-ness our collective resources, acumen and foresight to move ahead will be a defining moment. With change inescapably before us, we must articulate a new vision for Monmouth and create nothing short of a transformative learning experience for Monmouth students.”

Private universities’ survival will depend, in our view, on accepting honestly and responsibly the chal-lenges ahead, and exploring openly and creatively a myriad of options that ensure a better future for our students and a better future for our society.

We are witnessing a singular political moment that can become rich, vibrant, life-changing not only for the future of higher education but also for the future of the country. As it happened in Chile, the road can open quickly, and it is our responsibility as administrators, scholars and faculty at higher education institutions to ask ourselves about the prospects of a change like this and to start preparing to confront the challenges.

On my first day as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Santiago, students were absent from the classroom not because they were on vacation but because they were in the streets demanding educational reform. That day, I closed my office and went out to the streets to learn. Today in 2015, Chile has taken the necessary steps to offer tuition-free higher education.

This experience leads me to believe that perhaps the relevance of the proposals made by visionary politicians like Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton has been to elevate the student debt crisis to the electoral process. This can help make the need for educational reform a paramount issue that must be addressed by every presidential candidate regardless of political party.

The question remains how to move forward.

We concur with Dr. Drew G. Faust, president of Harvard, who addressed the members of the “U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Community Development and Housing Committee” in October of this year and declared that universities cannot only help to answer that question but are an intrinsic part of the solution.

We believe the solution is rooted in an education that teaches our students to think critically rather than regurgitate information. An education that teaches students to apply knowledge in creative ways and to propose innovative solutions even if these responses raise more questions than answers. An education that gives students the opportunities--and the tools--to engage deeply in learning without the burden of suffocating debt that deters many from pursuing college, affects academic performance during college and mortgages students’ lives and happiness after college. 

We believe that quality, universal and free education is a right. The road to college must depend on personal effort; quality early education; support of parents and family and awareness that those excluded also have a place in the construction of the future: theirs, ours and that of the country.

Are we – students, parents, administrators, scholars, teachers, politicians, 99 and 1% alike – ALL of us willing to push for change, and are we prepared to face the challenges that come with it? 

Perhaps that is another of the questions that should enter into the discussion, in classrooms, in scholar meetings. Otherwise, the direction of the process can change, and maybe, as in Chile, the street will be full of people marching, so the new ideas and revitalizing winds enter the classroom. 

Written in collaboration with Gustavo Gac-Artigas, writer, Contributing Member of the ANLE and co-author of E-GPS Essay-Ensayo, a mobile app for writing essays in English and Spanish


Dr. Priscilla Gac-Artigas is a Professor of Foreign Languages and Latin American Literature in the department of World Languages and Cultures at Monmouth University, NJ. She is a Fulbright Scholar and a Contributing Member of the Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española (ANLE). Among her latest publications —in conjunction with Gustavo Gac-Artigas, writer and Contributing Member of the ANLE— E-GPS Essay / Ensayo , mobile app for structuring logical and coherent essays either in English or Spanish.