How a Small Change at Walmart Could Send 9 Million Students to College

Is it a good idea for America to send qualified, yet underprivileged and lower-income students, to college? The answer is indisputable: yes.

President Obama’s new proposal, America’s College Promise, which would cover the cost of the first two years of community college for as many as 9 million students, however, has met criticism that there is no such thing as a free college and the national deficit is already too high. The Administration estimates that the program will cost approximately $60 billion over ten years.

As part of the important public discussion on how to help our students and communities succeed in a 21st century economy, it is important to look at these figures in context.

More than 1.3 million Americans work at Walmart, the nation’s largest employer. While experts agree that the retailer has exerted downward pressure on wages throughout the broader economy, the majority of Walmart workers are paid less than $25,000 a year. Workers have been speaking out for better wages and consistent, full-time hours that would allow them to provide for their families without relying on public assistance programs like food stamps.

Walmart’s practices not only impact workers, but American taxpayers as well. If Walmart was a better employer, like Costco for example, Americans would save a substantial sum. If Walmart improved its wages and hours, taxpayers could save $6.2 billion dollars a year, according to a recent report by Americans for Tax Fairness.

America could save at least $62 billion over ten years, which more than exceeds the price tag of America’s College Promise. And this wouldn’t hurt shareholder value. According to Steven Gandel, Walmart could offer its workers a 50% raise without impacting the company’s profits.

College is already prohibitively expensive in the U.S; student debt stands at more than $1 trillion. America’s middle class today is facing an unprecedented level of income inequality that puts the American Dream out of reach, something with which even Republican Governor Jeb Bush agrees. A college education is not only too expensive—many American workers are not paid enough to make one a remote possibility.

Walmart alone could send nine million people to community college for two years if it simply provided decent jobs. America could take one small step forward in stopping the cycle of poverty and inequality.

Walmart’s wage and benefit policies are what cost taxpayers too much: billions of dollars per year. New federal programs like America’s College Promise are urgent interventions to improve lives and the skills of our workforce in America. Walmart’s low-wage business model is bad for America and must be changed.

What do you think?