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Whatever Happened to When College Was Free?

Whatever Happened to When College Was Free?

Anya Kamenetz

April 12, 2010

These days, tuition at public colleges commonly rises five, seven, or even 15 percent in a single year, and students shoulder five- and six-figure debts to pay for their degrees. It’s easy to forget that it hasn’t always been this way: Many public colleges and universities were once tuition-free.

In 1847, Baruch College, now part of the City University of New York system, was founded as the Free Academy, the first free public college in the country. In 1862, the first Morrill Act established public universities through federal land grants, many states opted to charge no tuition or nominal tuition. California’s public-university system, still the largest in the nation, abolished tuition three months after it was founded in 1868, implementing instead a fee for additional services, such as health care, that at first was tiny.

The era of free tuition ended, ironically, with the student movement of the 1960s, just as campuses were getting more populous, diverse, and democratic. Ronald Reagan made the University of California a major punching bag of his 1966 campaign for governor of California, with the encouragement of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who saw campus peace activists as dangerous subversives. Upon taking office, Reagan managed to have UC president Clark Kerr fired—he had been the architect of mass higher education not just in California, but across the country—and hiked fees at the UC colleges to the approximate levels of tuition charged elsewhere.

A similar story happened in New York. In the 1960s, blacks and Latinos made up less than one-fifth of all students at CUNY schools, and most were confined to a non-baccalaureate track. The same colleges that had offered the city’s Jews and other immigrant groups important opportunities for advancement in the 1930s were frustrating the dreams of a new generation.

In the spring of 1969, students at City College staged a campus takeover, hanging a banner that proclaimed the school that had once been known as the “Harvard of the poor” to be “Harlem University.” Student activism and community support led the state Board of Higher Education to vote swiftly to open CUNY admission for the first time to all city high school graduates. However, only a few years after the college was fully integrated, in 1976, CUNY’s board voted to impose tuition for the first time. It seemed that citizens could support free education, or open education, but not both.