Bernie says higher education should be free. Hillary says students should be debt-free when they graduate. Bob Samuels, president of the University Council-AFT, welcomes this debate, but says neither Democratic presidential candidate goes far enough. 

“Sanders vision of making higher education universal equates it with universal high school. Clinton’s debt-free formulation is based on financial aid,” he explains. “It’s good to have discussion, but there’s still pressure not to talk about the difficulties.” He recalls the California Master Plan for Higher Education, adopted in 1960, which called for making higher education free and universal. “And it was free for awhile,” he recalls. “But we’ve been going backwards and the promise has been broken.”

Samuels contributed to the emergence of greater access to higher education as a central issue in this year’s presidential campaign. Three years ago he wrote a book, Why Higher Education Should be Free: How to Decrease Costs and Increase Quality at American Universities. “We have to think about higher education as a public good, not a private benefit for individuals — something that will increase a students ability to compete in the job market. If it’s not seen as a universal right, people won’t support what is necessary to fund it.”

The book got a lot of media attention, and a lot of negative reactions at first. But then President Obama proposed making community college free and called high student debt a problem. “What really pushed this into the mainstream also was the growing debt shouldered by the millennial generation,” Samuels adds.

In addition to making education free and accessible, we need to revitalize the union movement. Workers have lost their negotiating power.

One way to increase funding, he says, is to have universities focus on instruction and basic research instead of massive construction or expensive sports programs. He also argues that federal funding should be restructured. “Tax breaks for education are basically a voucher system, and benefit mostly the wealthy. Instead, the government should just give the equivalent funds directly to institutions,” he suggests.

Complicating the funding question, however, is the fact that both political parties, especially Democrats, have sold education, and justified college loan programs as a path to economic advancement.

“But this is clearly untrue,” Samuels charges. “Since 1965 the governmental funds directed to financial aid have surpassed a trillion dollars, and we have more inequality than ever. There aren’t enough good jobs for students who graduate, so they now compete with non-college graduates for low wage jobs in fast food or retail. That’s dragging down wages for both groups.”

Samuels has written a new book that takes on the dilemma. “We have to do two things at the same time,” he argues in it. “In addition to making education free and accessible, we need to revitalize the union movement. Workers have lost their negotiating power, and we’re overproducing workers competing for low-wage jobs.”

While he credits Sanders for speaking more directly about the need for the government to produce good jobs, he criticizes all the candidates for not directly advocating the need to strengthen unions. “I see a ray of hope in the new movements to organize low-wage workers, and in the academic world, especially non-tenured faculty. But our unions also have to adopt new tactics and strategies for organizing this new workforce.”

Achieving any of these goals, Samuels believes, requires political engagement: “If Sanders gets votes, that could influence the Democratic party platform in the general election. But ultimately, it’s going to take a social movement to push for these things.” 

— By David Bacon, CFT Reporter