I’ve been saying for years that we need to have a national debate about whether we want to have a public higher education system in this country, and that our failure to have that debate is killing public higher ed. I believe that to be true. With taxpayer support for many public colleges sliding toward single-digit percentages, with out-of-state tuition at some public universities approaching Harvard’s, with in-state applicants losing seats to make room for those out-of-state revenue streams in students’ clothing, we’re abandoning the idea of public higher education without giving that idea the respect of saying so.
And yet something curious is happening as a result. Slowly, haltingly, but with growing confidence, voices are beginning to rise in support of the concept of a higher education that is not merely public, but actually free. Economist Jeffrey Sachs claimed in a 2011 book that we could eliminate tuition at public colleges and universities nationwide for an investment of little as $15 billion a year, and since then the idea has been popping up more and more frequently in public discussion.
It’s not a new idea, of course. As a delegate to the US Student Association’s congresses in the early 1990s I remember ritually endorsing an end to tuition in resolutions every summer. But in those days the idea felt more than a little pro forma. Of course college should be free, we’d say, and then we’d go back to fighting tuition hikes and lobbying against Pell Grant cuts.