The Short Case for Making College Free and a Universal Right

After years of cuts, it’s time to make the pursuit of knowledge a right for all.

In These Times Editors

(Illustration by Terry LaBan)
free col•lege

1. A radical expansion of federal funding to make higher education a public good

College shouldn’t just be a privilege for those who can afford [it]. Like K-12 education, college is a basic need that should be available for free.

—Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), outlining her plan for free public college

How would we do this? How much would it cost?

Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run brought free college back into the national debate. His College for All Act, introduced in 2017, would provide federal and state funding to cover tuition at all public colleges and universities — for about $70 billion annually.

This time around, Bernie isn’t the only contender calling for debt-free diplomas. In April, Elizabeth Warren released a sweeping plan to eliminate tuition, expand assistance for housing and books, wipe out most student debt, and cut off federal funding to for-profit colleges. That plan comes in at $1.25 trillion over 10 years, paid by a proposed wealth tax.

Student debt is one of like 1.25 trillion problems right now. Is free college the priority? 

It’s worth remembering that federal land-grant universities were first created in the midst of the Civil War— not exactly a chill time in our history. In 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed a visionary piece of legislation championing accessible higher education for all — including liberated slaves, in intent though not always in practice — to provide a foundation for tackling the challenges facing the nation.

For nearly a century after federal land-grant colleges were first established, many public institutions were free, or nearly so. During the past three decades, states have slashed their higher ed funding and university administrators have embraced the idea that campuses should be run like businesses. But in the past five years, there’s been a push by cities and states—blue and red alike—to make public and community colleges tuition-free again. Add the fact that two leading presidential contenders are pushing free college and the concept might not be as fringe as you’d think.

Why should we make college free, even for those who can afford it?

Some politicians would rather expand assistance only for low-income students, rather than subsidize a program that could end up benefiting people like Lori Loughlin’s kids.

But means-tested programs tend to be politically vulnerable, attacked by the Right as charity for the poor. Universal programs, on the other hand, are often more popular. To say that things like housing, healthcare and education should be publicly subsidized sends the message that they are good for society as a whole. The pursuit of knowledge shouldn’t be treated like a business — it is the right of every person.

This is part of The Big Idea,” a monthly series offering brief introductions to progressive theories, policies, tools and strategies that can help us envision a world beyond capitalism. For past In These Times coverage of free college in action, see, The Fight For Free College Moves to the States,” A Brief Case for Cancelling All Student Loan Debt​,” These Students Are Leading a Movement for Free College in the United States,” and Why Can’t College Be Free?”

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