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When Someone Says We Can’t Afford Free College, Show Them This

Anytime one of your old high school classmates or right-wing family members makes an ignorant comment on Facebook about how free college would be too expensive, show them this.

A recent Facebook comment, responding to someone who posted a derogatory status update saying people asking for free college should “pay for it yourself,” broke down the math comparing the $80 billion that President Obama proposed to fund free community college, to the amount spent maintaining America’s military-industrial complex.

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“That’s about the cost of 8 months of war in Iraq,” the commenter said. “That’s $8 billion per year divided by the total number of taxpayers in America. In 2013, there were 242 million taxpayers so going of that number it would cost the average American taxpayer $33/year. Wow, so scary. What a horrible way to spend $33.”

The commenter is partially correct — a single year of the Iraq War cost taxpayers an estimated $262.8 billion dollars, assuming the daily cost of $720 million calculated by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz is correct ($280 million/day from Congress, $440 million/day in unfunded liabilities). $262.8 billion divided by 12 months is $21.9 billion per month. 8 months of the Iraq War is technically $175.2 billion, which is more than double the $80 billion figure the commenter estimated.

According to the IRS, 243 million Americans paid some form of federal taxes in 2013. 8 billion dollars divided by 243 million taxpayers is $32.9 dollars per year. But let’s take that math a step further, and apply it to the cost of free 4-year college for all Americans.

According to 2012 data from the Department of Education, America’s public colleges and universities collected $62.6 billion in tuition from students. This means that, hypothetically, allotting $62.6 billion per year (adjusted for inflation) toward public universities and colleges could solve the student debt crisis entrapping entire generations. $62.6 billion, divided by 243 million taxpayers, amounts to $257.60 per year for each taxpayer, or just 70 cents a day. To put that in perspective, the U.S. government ironically spends $69 billion on federal student aid programs like Pell Grants. Theoretically, if the government replaced these programs with a simple budget line item for tuition-free public college education, we would actually save almost $7 billion per year.

The math is clear: free 4-year college for every American would only cost taxpayers 70 cents a day. What would it take to raise enough support for this to become reality? Maybe we should take the UNICEF approach.

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