Free College Was Once the Norm All Over America

When people involved in the fight to cancel student debt demand free college education, they’re not calling for a new, radical idea. Countless numbers of lawmakers, for example, got their educations at free colleges that they now say are out of reach to the nation’s students. One of the best examples was the City University of New York, whose tuition was free until the late 1960s. Sanford University was founded on the premise of offering a college education free of charge to all California residents. College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., offered comprehensive tuition scholarship programs, which covered tuition in exchange for a pledge of the student to engage for two years in some kind of service after graduation. Harvard President Charles W. Eliot insisted that the cost of college should not be passed on to students, writing in a letter, “I want to have the college open equally to men with much money, little money, or no money, provided they all have brains.” The perception of higher education changed dramatically around 1910. Private colleges began to attract more students from upper-class families — students who went to college for the social experience and not necessarily for learning. In 1927, John D. Rockefeller began campaigning for charging students the full cost it took to educate them, and in 1966 then-Governor Ronald Reagan recommended that the University of California begin charging tuition. Tuition — and student loans — thus became commonly accepted aspects of the economics of higher education.