Policy makers, educators, and researchers have tried and failed to figure out the parameters of making life fair by providing access to college. One of the big barriers to attending college is the soul-crushing cost. Tuition at public universities, while still less expensive for state residents than private institutions, has skyrocketed over the past decade. From 2007 to 2018, tuition increased on average 31% at public universities in the United States(NCES).*
In their original form the land-grant universities were part of Justin Morrill’s “plan for a State university for the industrial classes.” States were granted federal land which they could sell. The proceeds from the sale would be used to fund a public university for the state. Land-grant colleges include the University of California, University of Connecticut, Cornell University, Rutger University and Iowa State University, to name a few.
The land-grant colleges were free when they began in the 1860s. In fact, the idea of free college was written into the university charters. The 1868 charter from the University of California included the following provision: “as soon as the income of the University shall permit, admission and tuition shall be free to all residents of the State.” Yet, the universities are no longer free.
Initially, universities would tack on fees to cover shortfalls from the state funding. Those “fees” grew substantially. In 1960 in-state University of California students paid just $60 a semester in fees. By 2018 those fees, now called tuition, amount to more than $18,000 a year (PPIC). At the University of Connecticut, residents paid $17,226 for the 2020-21 school year; under the tuition plan announced in 2019, the tuition will rise 23.3% over the next 5 years.
The move from tuition free college to tuition charging institutions came as public support for funding them dwindled: ” ‘Public colleges and universities were often free at their founding in the United States, but over time, as public support was reduced or not increased sufficiently to compensate for their growth in students and costs (faculty and staff salaries, utilities etc.), they moved first to a low tuition and eventually higher tuition policy,’ said Cornell University professor Ronald Gordon Ehrenberg.” (Politifact, 2016) Yet, that may be changing. With the rising cost of college and growing levels of student loan debt, support for tuition-free college has grown. A Pew Research poll conducted in January of 2020 found that Democrats (and some Republicans) overwhelmingly favor tuition-free public colleges.
With broad support from the public, it would seem that “free college” would be an obvious win for lawmakers. One challenge from opponents for free college is that those who don’t need a tuition break would still benefit. This is a common argument from lawmakers and opponents to providing any service “to all.” The rich, they argue, can afford to pay for college. Therefore, they shouldn’t benefit from free college, continues the argument.
Generally speaking if you don’t eliminate any one group, policy that benefits all tends to be a win. For example, social security, which was created in 1935 under Franklin D. Roosevelt, provides retirement to income to all legal residents in the United States. The fund is paid into by a tax on wages. At retirement individuals begin to receive social security benefits regardless of individual wealth. In other words, even those who don’t need the money receive it. Medicare created under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty campaign is another example of a public benefit for all. Medicare provides health insurance for everyone in the United States aged 65 years or over. It doesn’t matter your income. If you are over 65, you have health insurance provided by the federal government. To date the United States has been more than happy to provide a public benefit to its elderly population.
Another, fairly obvious example, is K-12 education. Children from high-income families who could afford private school attend public schools across the United States. So, K-12 education is another public benefit for all. Tuition-free college is simply an extension of the education we already provided. Seven of the 36 countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) provide free college. Denmark, Finland, and Ireland are just three of those countries. The fact that the United States, the country with the highest GDP in the world, chooses not to invest in free college is disappointing. College graduates are more likely to be employed and earn more than individuals who have a high school diploma. The long-term economic benefit to the broader community is worth the investment.
*For a comparison of how state funding and tuition has changed by state over the past decade, check out this article from Abigail Johnson Hess.