These Students Are Leading a Movement for Free College in the United States

At last, real organizing for tuition-free college is taking off in America.

Rebecca Nathanson

Hundreds of UC Santa Barbara students gather in front of Storke Tower during the Million Student March on Nov. 12, 2015. (Kenneth Song/News-Press/Zuma Press/Newscom)

On Nov. 12, 2015, stu­dents at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, redec­o­rat­ed their idyl­lic cam­pus with a wall of shame.” On pieces of paper taped to the admin­is­tra­tion build­ing, stu­dents pro­claimed how much debt they had assumed in order to attend the pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ty — for some, more than $160,000.

In the past three decades, average tuition at U.S. public universities has more than tripled.

With chants of, Free col­lege: That’s our right. What do we do? Fight, fight, fight,” the stu­dents called for an increas­ing­ly pop­u­lar solu­tion to the grow­ing bur­den of stu­dent debt: abol­ish­ing tuition entire­ly at pub­lic col­leges and universities.

Through­out most of the 20th cen­tu­ry, many pub­lic col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties were free, or near­ly so. California’s land­mark 1960 Mas­ter Plan for High­er Edu­ca­tion, for exam­ple, was essen­tial­ly a pledge to edu­cate all res­i­dents of the state who want­ed an edu­ca­tion for free or for a nom­i­nal fee. But the plan was soon attacked by Gov. Ronald Rea­gan, who paint­ed free pub­lic high­er edu­ca­tion as wel­fare for priv­i­leged twen­ty-some­things and began shift­ing costs to stu­dents when he took office in 1967. Today, the total cost of tuition and fees at the state’s pub­lic Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia cam­pus­es stands at $12,240 for in-state res­i­dents. City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York (CUNY), like­wise, didn’t begin charg­ing tuition until 1976. It now costs $6,330 per year for in-state stu­dents, not includ­ing fees.

The idea of free high­er edu­ca­tion has gained new polit­i­cal life thanks in part to a high-pro­file cham­pi­on. Sen. Bernie Sanders has made tuition-free col­lege a sig­na­ture issue of his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, call­ing it the key to a stronger econ­o­my and a stronger democ­ra­cy.” Under Sanders’ plan, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment would cov­er the cost by impos­ing a finan­cial trans­ac­tion tax on Wall Street. Sanders has stressed that pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties are already tuition- free in Ger­many, Mex­i­co and many oth­er coun­tries, and said in a June 2015 inter­view that he believed they could be free in the Unit­ed States, as well, if a mil­lion young peo­ple marched in the streets to demand it.

Stu­dents rose to the chal­lenge this fall, stag­ing a Mil­lion Stu­dent March on Nov. 12, 2015 with demon­stra­tions on more than 100 cam­pus­es. The protests cen­tered on three demands: tuition-free pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties, a $15 min­i­mum wage for all cam­pus work­ers and can­cel­la­tion of stu­dent debt.

In the past three decades, aver­age tuition at U.S. pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties has more than tripled. The mon­ey has gone to off­set deep cuts in state fund­ing, but also to fuel a bal­loon­ing of admin­is­tra­tions and state-of-the art cam­pus facil­i­ties. Giv­en that stu­dents have borne the brunt of these changes — aver­age stu­dent debt at col­lege grad­u­a­tion grew from $18,550 in 2004 to $28,950 in 2014 — one might ask, why weren’t U.S. stu­dents flood­ing the streets sooner?

Places with far low­er high­er edu­ca­tion costs have seen the rise of mil­i­tant stu­dent move­ments oppos­ing tuition hikes and pri­va­ti­za­tion. In 2012, tens of thou­sands of stu­dents in Québec, Cana­da, boy­cotted class­es and took to the streets in response to a pro­pos­al to raise uni­ver­si­ty tuition. A province-wide stu­dent strike last­ed more than 100 days — the longest in Québec’s his­to­ry — and won a tuition freeze. Begin­ning in 2011, Chilean stu­dents held two years of mass protests, orga­niz­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of stu­dents through the Con­fed­eración de Estu­di­antes de Chile, a nation­al coali­tion of stu­dent unions. In Jan­u­ary 2015, the Chilean Con­gress passed a land­mark law pro­hibit­ing state-sub­si­dized schools and uni­ver­si­ties from oper­at­ing as for- prof­its, but pro­test­ers con­tin­ue to demand free edu­ca­tion for all.

How­ev­er, both Québec and Chile had long his­to­ries of stu­dent activism around afford­able edu­ca­tion, with coali­tions that could mobi­lize stu­dents quick­ly across cam­pus­es. While U.S. col­leges have his­tor­i­cal­ly been key bat­tle­grounds for a range of social issues— sex­u­al vio­lence, inter­na­tion­al human rights, envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice, and most recent­ly, racial jus­tice — they lack the same tra­di­tion of stu­dent union­ism. Orga­niz­ing across geo­graph­i­cal­ly dis­parate cam­pus­es also presents a hurdle.

But stu­dent orga­niz­ers from New York to Cal­i­for­nia are ris­ing to the chal­lenge, led by CUNY and UC stu­dents who want to revive their schools’ mis­sions to pro­vide uni­ver­sal access to edu­ca­tion. Being able to build stu­dent pow­er sys­tem-wide and even statewide is the place to start,” says Art Mot­ta, a senior at UC San­ta Cruz. The Mil­lion Stu­dent March was the first nation­wide action; orga­niz­ers came togeth­er from activist groups across the coun­try via Face­book and con­fer­ence calls. They are con­sid­er­ing a fol­low-up in the spring. Although most orga­niz­ing takes place on the cam­pus or at the statewide lev­el, there are a hand­ful of nation­al stu­dent orga­ni­za­tions with mem­bers or chap­ters through­out the coun­try. The largest, Unit­ed States Stu­dent Asso­ci­a­tion, focus­es pri­mar­i­ly on using its exten­sive net­work to push for leg­isla­tive change, rather than mass direct actions.

Politi­cians are begin­ning to take notice of grow­ing pub­lic sup­port for the idea: Though she oppos­es Sanders’ plan for tuition-free col­lege, Hillary Clin­ton has a $350 bil­lion plan to reduce debt in high­er edu­ca­tion by cut­ting costs at pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties and expand­ing income-based loan repay­ment, among oth­er mea­sures. Clin­ton has also endorsed tuition-free com­mu­ni­ty col­lege, a pro­pos­al that is cur­rent­ly being pur­sued by Pres­i­dent Oba­ma, based on a pol­i­cy in Ten­nessee.
 And by join­ing forces with work­ers demand­ing a $15 min­i­mum wage, stu­dents may be able to draw on the pow­er of the labor move­ment. At the UC Berke­ley march for tuition-free col­lege, mem­bers of the Cal­i­for­nia Nurs­es Asso­ci­a­tion showed up in the hun­dreds to lend support.

To tru­ly make high­er edu­ca­tion acces­si­ble to all, any plan will have to address not only its cost, but its his­to­ry of seg­re­ga­tion and exclu­sion of stu­dents of col­or, notes Daisy Vil­lalo­bos, a junior at CUNY’s Hunter Col­lege. The two issues are far from sep­a­rate: 42 per­cent of African-Amer­i­can fam­i­lies had stu­dent loans in 2013, com­pared to 24 per­cent of white fam­i­lies. And the debt protests have coin­cid­ed with a wave of stu­dent protests high­light­ing oth­er ways that insti­tu­tion­al racism func­tions on cam­pus. While the two stu­dent move­ments have only just begun to artic­u­late their links, some cam­pus­es includ­ed racial jus­tice in their Mil­lion Stu­dent March demands.

I do believe that a stu­dent move­ment is grow­ing,” Vil­lalo­bos says. But I think it’s going to have to be about chang­ing what high­er edu­ca­tion looks like in Amer­i­ca to bet­ter fit our needs as a nation.” 

Rebec­ca Nathanson is a free­lance writer in New York City. She has writ­ten for Al Jazeera Amer­i­ca, n+1, The Nation, NewYork​er​.com, The Pro­gres­sive, Rolling​Stone​.com, and more.
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