In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Land Grant College Act into law, laying the groundwork for the largest system of publicly funded universities in the world. Some of America’s greatest colleges, including the University of Minnesota, were created by federal land grants, and were known as “democracy’s colleges” or “people’s colleges.”
But that vision of a “people’s college” seems awfully remote to a growing number of American students crushed under soaring tuitions and mounting debt. One hundred and fifty years after Lincoln made his pledge, it’s time to make public colleges and universities free for every American.
This idea is easier than it looks. For most of our nation’s history, public colleges and universities have been much more affordable than they are today, with lower tuition, and financial aid that covered a much larger portion of the costs. The first step in making college accessible again, and returning to an education system that serves every American, is addressing the student loan debt crisis.
The cost of attending a four-year college has increased by 1,122 percent since 1978. Galloping tuition hikes have made attending college more expensive today than at any point in U.S. history. At the same time, debt from student loans has become the largest form of personal debt in America—bigger than credit card debt and auto loans. Last year, 38 million American students owed more than $1.3 trillion in student loans.
Once, a degree used to mean a brighter future for college graduates, access to the middle class, and economic stability. Today, student loan debt increases inequality and makes it harder for low-income graduates, particularly those of color, to buy a house, open a business, and start a family.
The solution lies in federal investments to states to lower the overall cost of public colleges and universities. In exchange, states would commit to reinvesting state funds in higher education. Any public college or university that benefited from the reinvestment program would be required to limit tuition increases. This federal-state partnership would help lower tuition for all students. Schools that lowered tuition would receive additional federal grants based on the degree to which costs are lowered.
Reinvesting in higher education programs like Pell Grants and work-study would ensure that Pell and other forms of financial aid that students don’t need to pay back would cover a greater portion of tuition costs for low-income students. In addition, states that participate in this partnership would ensure that low-income students who attend state colleges and universities could afford non-tuition expenses like textbooks and housing fees. This proposal is one way to ensure that no student graduates with loans to pay back.
If the nation can provide hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies to the oil and gas industry and billions of dollars more to Wall Street, we can afford to pay for public higher education. A tax on financial transactions like derivatives and stock trades would cover the cost. Building a truly affordable higher education system is an investment that would pay off economically.
Eliminating student loan debt is the first step, but it’s not the last. Once we ensure that student loan debt isn’t a barrier to going to college, we should reframe how we think about higher education. College shouldn’t just be debt free—it should be free. Period.
We all help pay for our local high schools and kindergartens, whether or not we send our kids to them. And all parents have the option of choosing public schools, even if they can afford private institutions. Free primary and secondary schooling is good for our economy, strengthens our democracy, and most importantly, is critical for our children’s health and future. Educating our kids is one of our community’s most important responsibilities, and it’s a right that every one of us enjoys. So why not extend public schooling to higher education as well?
Some might object that average Americans should not have to pay for students from wealthy families to go to school. But certain things should be guaranteed to all Americans, poor or rich. It’s not a coincidence that some of the most important social programs in our government’s history have applied to all citizens, and not just to those struggling to make ends meet.
Universal programs are usually stronger and more stable over the long term, and they’re less frequently targeted by budget cuts and partisan attacks. Public schools have stood the test of time—let’s make sure public colleges and universities do, too.
The United States has long been committed to educating all its people, not only its elites.
This country is also the wealthiest in the history of the world. We can afford to make college an option for every American family.
State universities and community colleges should offer free tuition to all students who academically qualify for admission.
Our current, insufficient, inefficient patchwork of college aid relies increasingly on loans that saddle graduates with too much debt and too few options once they enter the workforce.
Tuition-free and loan-free college education would not only give a vital boost to aspiring students of modest and middle means, but also make sure we don’t cheat our society of its next great leader because he or she faced a purely economic bar to college admission.
Recognizing a democracy’s basic need for an educated citizenry, our nation has tried through most of its history to make college more accessible and affordable.
We’ve enacted laws ranging from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and Morrill Act of 1862, which helped create the relatively low-cost state college system; to the post-World War II GI Bill and Higher Education Act of 1965, which gave direct aid to students. As a result, ours was the first society in human history with a broad participation in higher education.
That policy of widening college access was abandoned beginning in the 1970s. Spurred on by faulty theories on how best to aid low-income students and by state governments’ budget crises — which were fueled in part by profligate tax-cutting — state colleges began to receive less public funding and in turn to demand more from students and their families in the form of tuition and fees. Meanwhile, direct aid — such as Pell Grants — began to shrink and student debt to grow.
The results have been predictably bad. Collective student debt now tops $1 trillion, greater than all credit card debt combined. More and more promising students are making the economic calculation that college just isn’t worth the price.
Luckily, some far-seeing reformers have set out to change that troubling calculation. The Oregon legislature recently created a commission to consider a plan — “Pay It Forward, Pay It Back” — that would finance tuition-free attendance at the state’s four-year and community colleges via a 3 percent surtax on the income of graduates, a system that already works well in Australia and the United Kingdom.
Robert Samuels, president of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers, proposed in a recent academic journal that all college education could be made tuition-free and loan-free simply by using more efficiently the public resources already dedicated to higher education.
Public college aid is currently misallocated. Federal and state tax credits and deductions for individual students to attend higher education cost public treasuries about $70 billion between 1999 and 2009.
States also lose money on college-savings plans, which the wealthy can use as tax shelters, but which again do little to help poorer students and their families.
Free higher education would restore our nation’s vaunted but now mostly absent social mobility, create a more capable workforce, and make sure that smart, ambitious young Americans from any side of town can fulfill their dreams.
Don Kusler is executive director of Americans for Democratic Action.