David Michael Miller
I loved my city job and I love running the Wisconsin Bike Fed, but my best job ever was when I worked on the loading dock at Gimbel’s department store at Hilldale. It paid pretty good for a part-time student job, I could wear jeans, and I usually worked alone at my own pace.
Moreover, it gave me a nice sense of independence and accomplishment. I paid most of my way through college with that job. The lag in the growth of the minimum wage and the more rapid increase in the cost of attending college makes it much harder to do what I did in the late 1970s. But college jobs are still a great idea and much better than a handout program.
Gov. Scott Walker has stolen a fraction of one of Bernie Sanders’ most popular ideas. Sanders would have provided free college tuition at all public universities. Walker is proposing a 5 percent tuition cut at UW System schools in the second year of his new two-year state budget.
Let me join Republican legislative leaders in being cool to the governor’s idea. In fact, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) has gone so far as to say something liberals might find sensible. Vos has said that a tuition reduction might not make sense because it benefits wealthy, middle-class and poor families equally. He would rather add more money to means-tested student aid programs.
This is another time I find myself agreeing with Vos. He has also come out in favor of a vehicle-miles-traveled tax to pay for roads so that the more you drive, the more you pay. Works for me.
Not to worry, though. I will soon check myself into a 12-step liberal re-education facility. A week or two of a diet rich in kale and immersion in Samantha Bee reruns should get me right back on track.
But there is a real and growing problem of student debt that has to be addressed in some way, and even converting a 5 percent tuition cut to means-tested programs won’t be nearly enough.
Why not simply pay students to work their way through college?
Let’s say the goal was to allow students to work enough to pay for their complete tuition costs. That would be about 200 hours a semester at $25 an hour. This would amount to not just a slight tuition cut, but actual free tuition. Except it wouldn’t be a handout, but a direct reward for real work.
There are existing work-study programs so we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but we need to make sure the jobs pay enough and are available to anyone who wants to work.
It would help students build work experience and a resume and, as opposed to a simple grant, net productive work useful to employers or to society. Moreover, it reinforces a positive American value: Work hard, play by the rules, and you’ll get ahead.
There are plenty of objections to this idea. It would cost a lot, but any solution to the student debt problem is going to be expensive. There might not be enough jobs to go around, but if you think beyond just campuses to broader communities, it’s possible that nonprofits could absorb all that talent and time. Kids from rich families wouldn’t have to work, but that’s true now. Blue-collar workers might object that students would be earning a lot more than they are. I have no easy response to that one, except to say that we’d be expecting students to hold down a full course load and work about 15 hours a week. It would not be an easy life.
I offer this idea free of charge to the Democratic Party because the Dems have to get out from under their image as the party of the giveaway and the party of rights without responsibilities.
Want to get through college with less debt, kid? Get a job!