Father William Byron, S.J.

Father William Byron, S.J.

Hillary Clinton, influenced by the public support of her former rival Bernie Sanders’ proposal to make public college tuition free for most young Americans, has now made that idea her own.

She is apparently willing to ignore the private sector of higher education by excluding independent colleges from participation in her proposal to make college affordable and accessible. That is a glaring omission.

Limiting assistance to students who choose public higher education would exclude all the 28 Jesuit colleges as well as all other church-related institutions, not to mention hundreds of lightly endowed but high-quality private schools.

Leaders in the private sector of higher education have for decades argued that federal assistance to students seeking higher education should provide both access and choice, which, of course, means inclusion of private colleges in any student aid program.

If candidate Clinton were to acknowledge the existence and the value of private colleges, she would no doubt make a lot of friends. If she ignores them, the nation will be the loser.

One way of opening her assistance program to the independent institutions of higher education would be to give an educational voucher worth, say $1,000, in recognition of a specified number of months in civilian national service — elder care, child care, repair of the urban infrastructure, protection of the environment, tutoring poor children and similar activities.

One can think of Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Teach for America or any other preapproved organized volunteer community service program for inclusion here.

The total voucher value might be limited, say, to $10,000, but recipients would be permitted to apply it either to tuition payments in independent higher education or to pay off student debt wherever acquired.

There is nothing world-shaking or budget-busting here, but it would be a direct acknowledgment of the value of both community service and private higher education. Adding some discussion of both would provide a welcome lift to present presidential campaign oratory.

I went to college on the GI Bill of Rights after World War II. Veterans of that war got two months of free higher education (wherever we wanted to enroll — public or private) for every one month in uniform.

It was the greatest investment in human capital this nation ever made. Indeed, it is sometimes suggested that the GI Bill helped to create the middle class in America.

The nation would be better off if there were a resurgence of civilian national service now. Those who render the service would be a lot better off if they received post-service educational benefits in the accredited college of their choice.


Jesuit Father William J. Byron is professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia. Email: wbyron@sju.edu.