Whatever Happened to When College Was Free?

The transformation of higher education and how you can be in on it.

These days, tuition at public colleges commonly rises five, seven, or even 15 percent in a single year, and students shoulder five- and six-figure debts to pay for their degrees. It’s easy to forget that it hasn’t always been this way: Many public colleges and universities were once tuition-free.

In 1847, Baruch College, now part of the City University of New York system, was founded as the Free Academy, the first free public college in the country. In 1862, the first Morrill Act established public universities through federal land grants, many states opted to charge no tuition or nominal tuition. California’s public-university system, still the largest in the nation, abolished tuition three months after it was founded in 1868, implementing instead a fee for additional services, such as health care, that at first was tiny.

The era of free tuition ended, ironically, with the student movement of the 1960s, just as campuses were getting more populous, diverse, and democratic. Ronald Reagan made the University of California a major punching bag of his 1966 campaign for governor of California, with the encouragement of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who saw campus peace activists as dangerous subversives. Upon taking office, Reagan managed to have UC president Clark Kerr fired—he had been the architect of mass higher education not just in California, but across the country—and hiked fees at the UC colleges to the approximate levels of tuition charged elsewhere.

A similar story happened in New York. In the 1960s, blacks and Latinos made up less than one-fifth of all students at CUNY schools, and most were confined to a non-baccalaureate track. The same colleges that had offered the city’s Jews and other immigrant groups important opportunities for advancement in the 1930s were frustrating the dreams of a new generation.

In the spring of 1969, students at City College staged a campus takeover, hanging a banner that proclaimed the school that had once been known as the “Harvard of the poor” to be “Harlem University.” Student activism and community support led the state Board of Higher Education to vote swiftly to open CUNY admission for the first time to all city high school graduates. However, only a few years after the college was fully integrated, in 1976, CUNY’s board voted to impose tuition for the first time. It seemed that citizens could support free education, or open education, but not both.

So what’s wrong with charging tuition?

The obvious problem is that tuition, even when offset by scholarships and financial aid, makes college harder to access for lower-income students.

Sticker shock and debt aversion drive away many who might be able to take advantage of financial aid. Studies show that lower-income students absorb the message that college is “too expensive,” often as early as the eighth grade and make decisions about their futures accordingly. And sometimes there isn’t enough aid to make college affordable. In 2007-2008, according to the Institute for College Access and Success, 80 percent of community college students had unmet need averaging over $5,000.

The more subtle problem with charging tuition is that it has changed the cost structure of higher education. Traditionally most colleges other than for-profits get revenue from public subsidies and private philanthropy as well as tuition. According to a 2009 study by the Delta Cost Project, a primary reason that state colleges have been increasing tuition by such whopping increments—5 percent a year, after inflation, over the past decade—is that they’re losing state revenue, and shifting costs toward students. Unlike other areas in our economy, higher education hasn’t exactly been a model of efficiency or innovation. As costs rise, colleges have responded by raising tuition bills, allowing federal and private student loans, as well as family piggy banks, to absorb the difference.

Are there ways to revive and champion the radical ideal of “free” in higher education? I see two options: One hearkens back to the 19th century model; the other is more reminiscent of the 1960s. First, free colleges could be traditional colleges deploying philanthropic resources combined with frugality. In 1859, Peter Cooper, an industrialist and autodidact who believed that education should be as “free as water and air,” founded the Cooper Union in Manhattan. The college's dedication to free tuition (technically, each student receives a full-tuition scholarship worth $35,000) means it must skip "extras" like a gym, a student union, or even a large cafeteria. Their selection of majors also remains tightly focused on engineering, architecture, and art.

In addition to Cooper Union, the Work Colleges, a consortium of seven private liberal arts colleges, many located in rural settings and with religious roots, are either free or at least committed to graduating students debt-free, and require students to work in everything from groundskeeping to admissions, in order to defray their costs. (Check out two more lists of free colleges here and here.)

The other model for free education goes back to the teach-ins and free schools of the 1960s, where communities banded together to teach about topics that were generally left out of traditional colleges. In the past decade, the Internet has made this DIY attitude possible on a broader scale than ever before. Academic Earth, OpenEd, The OpenCourseWare Consortium, Connexions, Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources, Wikiversity, YouTube EDU, and iTunesU, are each a vast universe of free, open educational content, whether in stand-alone lectures, organized into short units or full-length courses.

Attempts to take advantage of this wealth of material and organize free learning communities are still in the beginning stages. They include OpenLearn, an online community organized around open educational resources by the Open University in the UK; the School of Everything, and Unclasses—both platforms where teachers can find students, and Peer2Peer University, “an online community of open study groups for short university-level courses.” Also, the University of the People is an online-only nonprofit offering bachelor’s degrees in business and computer science using open texts. And you can also start your own on-the-ground free learning community, as Mary Blackburn has done with her small-scale experiment, the Anhoek School or use a platform like NaMaYa to set up your own school for free.

Education is a right. Free college is an important part of the movement to make that right available to all.

Anya Kamenetz is a staff writer for Fast Company and author of "Generation Debt." Her new book, "DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education" is available now.

via Collection of the New-York Historical Society / Wikimedia Commons

Fredrick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818. At the age of 10 he was given to the Auld family.

As a child, he worked as a house slave and was able to learn to read and write, and he attempted to teach his fellow slaves the same skills.

At the age of 15, he was given to Thomas Auld, a cruel man who beat and starved his slaves and thwarted any opportunity for them to practice their faith or to learn to read or write.

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via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

On April 20, 1889 at the Braunau am Inn, in Upper Austria Salzburger located at Vorstadt 15, Alois and Klara Hitler brought a son into the world. They named him Adolph.

Little did they know he would grow up to be one of the greatest forces of evil the world has ever known.

The Hitlers moved out of the Braunau am Inn when Adolph was three, but the three-story butter-colored building still stands. It has been the subject of controversy for seven decades.

via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

The building was a meeting place for Nazi loyalists in the 1930s and '40s. After World War II, the building has become an informal pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis and veterans to glorify the murderous dictator.

The building was a thorn in the side to local government and residents to say the least.

RELATED: He photographed Nazi atrocities and buried the negatives. The unearthed images are unforgettable.

For years it was owned by Gerlinde Pommer, a descendant of the original owners. The Austrian government made numerous attempts to purchase it from her, but to no avail. The building has served many purposes, a school, a library, and a makeshift museum.

In 1989, a stone from the building was inscribed with:

"For Peace, Freedom

and Democracy.

Never Again Fascism.

Millions of Dead Remind [us]."

via Jo Oh / Wikimedia Commons

For three decades it was home to an organization that offered support and integration assistance for disabled people. But in 2011, the organization vacated the property because Pommer refused to bring it up to code.

RELATED: 'High Castle' producers destroyed every swastika used on the show and the video is oh-so satisfying

In 2017, the fight between the government and Pommer ended with it seizing the property. Authorities said it would get a "thorough architectural remodeling is necessary to permanently prevent the recognition and the symbolism of the building."

Now, the government intends to turn it into a police station which will surely deter any neo-Nazis from hanging around the building.

Austria has strict anti-Nazi laws that aim to prohibit any potential Nazi revival. The laws state that anyone who denies, belittles, condones or tries to justify the Nazi genocide or other Nazi crimes against humanity shall be punished with imprisonment for one year up to ten years.

In Austria the anti-Nazi laws are so strict one can go to prison for making the Nazi hand salute or saying "Heil Hitler."

"The future use of the house by the police should send an unmistakable signal that the role of this building as a memorial to the Nazis has been permanently revoked," Austria's IInterior Minister, Wolfgang Peschorn said in a statement.

The house is set to be redesigned following an international architectural competition.

via Chela Horsdal / Twitter

Amazon's "The Man in the High Castle" debuted the first episode of its final season last week.

The show is loosely based on an alternative history novel by Philip K. Dick that postulates what would happen if Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan controlled the United States after being victorious in World War II.

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via Mike Mozart / Flickr

Chick-fil-A is the third-largest fast food chain in America, behind McDonald's and Starbucks, raking in over $10 billion a year.

But for years, the company has faced boycotts for supporting anti-LGBT charities, including the Salvation Army, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Paul Anderson Youth Home.

The Salvation Army faced criticism after a leader in the organization implied that gay people "deserve to die" and the company also came under fire after refusing to offer same-sex couples health insurance. But the organization swears it's evolving on such issues.

via Thomas Hawk / Flickr

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes explicitly announced it was anti gay marriage in a recent "Statement of Faith."

God instituted marriage between one man and one woman as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

The Paul Anderson Youth Home teaches boys that homosexuality is wrong and that same-sex marriage is "rage against Jesus Christ and His values."

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In 2012, Chick-fil-A's CEO, Dan Cathy, made anti same-sex marriage comments on a radio broadcast:

I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, "We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage". I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.

But the chicken giant has now decided to change it's says its charitable donation strategy because it's bad for business...Not because being homophobic is wrong.

The company recently lost several bids to provide concessions in U.S. airports. A pop-up shop in England was told it would not be renewed after eight days following LGBTQ protests.

Chick-fil-A also has plans to expand to Boston, Massachusetts where its mayor, Thomas Menino, pledged to ban the restaurant from the city.

via Wikimedia Commons

"There's no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are," Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Tassopoulos told Bisnow. "There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message."

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Instead, the Chick-fil-A Foundation plans to give $9 million to organizations that support education and fight homelessness. Which is commendable regardless of the company's troubled past.

"If Chick-Fil-A is serious about their pledge to stop holding hands with divisive anti-LGBTQ activists, then further transparency is needed regarding their deep ties to organizations like Focus on the Family, which exist purely to harm LGBTQ people and families," Drew Anderson, GLAAD's director of campaigns and rapid response, said in a statement.

Chick-fil-A's decision to back down from contributing to anti-LGBT charities shows the power that people have to fight back against companies by hitting them where it really hurts — the pocket book.

The question remains: If you previously avoided Chick-fil-A because it supported anti-LGBT organizations, is it now OK to eat there? Especially when Popeye's chicken sandwich is so good people will kill for it?


Oh, irony. You are having quite a day.

The Italian region of Veneto, which includes the city of Venice, is currently experiencing historic flooding. Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro has stated that the flooding is a direct result of climate change, with the tide measuring the highest level in 50 years. The city (which is actually a collection of 100 islands in a lagoon—hence its famous canal streets), is no stranger to regular flooding, but is currently on the brink of declaring a state of emergency as waters refuse to recede.

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