The United States is an outlier in terms of its prohibitively large student debt, which stands at $1.75 trillion and amounts to roughly 7.5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, and exorbitant college costs. Indeed, other countries such as France and Germany offer low-cost tuition, and in countries including Finland, Brazil, Norway and Panama, there is no tuition at all. But education did not always come at such a high cost in America, where public education was once treated as a public good.
During the 1960s, government funding for these public institutions began to fall precipitously, resulting in the austerity regime we are witnessing today. The reason? Conservatives waged an ideological war against publicly funded colleges and universities that had become a place for social justice activism.
Free and low-cost college became the norm when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act of 1862, which provided land grants for states to establish public colleges and universities. In the 20th century, the federal government demonstrated its commitment to expanding educational opportunities with the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the GI Bill, which covered tuition and expenses for veterans attending college or trade school. In the postwar era, college enrollment soared thanks to the advent of federal student grants and loans through the 1958 National Defense Education Act, and the expansion of federal financial aid and work-study programs for low-income students with the 1965 Higher Education Act.
Political support for such policies began to change during the 1960s as the civil rights movement expanded to college campuses. Student activists demanded more equitable campus environments and increased admissions for students of color. Universities developed affirmative action policies to diversify and transform their overwhelmingly White student bodies. Conservatives responded by cutting funds for public education and advancing the idea that not everyone — particularly working-class and low-income people — should have access to college.
California Gov. Ronald Reagan fired the first shot by cutting funding to the University of California system and then for the first time making in-state students pay tuition as well as fees, as part of an effort to politicize education and make it a wedge issue. At the time, California public colleges and universities had become centers of student antiwar and civil rights activism. The Free Speech Movement formed at the University of California at Berkeley when students challenged campus policies against political protest and free speech. That student movement was later motivated by opposition to the Vietnam War. In the year following the assassination of Malcolm X, Merritt Junior College students Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in 1966 in Oakland, Calif. And students of color at San Francisco State University staged the longest student strike starting in 1968, leading to the birth of the ethnic studies movement across the country.
And so, at a time when higher education had begun to diversify its student body and expand opportunities for marginalized communities, conservatives made the case for college education as a private endeavor for the individual rather than a public good that benefits society. Reagan’s education advisor, Roger Freeman, warned, “We are in danger of producing an educated proletariat. … That’s dynamite! We have to be selective on who we allow [to go to college]. If not, we will have a large number of highly trained and unemployed people,” he added, claiming such conditions had created fascism in Germany.
Reagan — who according to an FBI memo was “dedicated to the destruction of disruptive elements on California college campuses” — cut funding to the UC system as a means to engage in austerity politics and please the conservative base. Narrowing the scope of government, Reagan charged tuition to “get rid of undesirables … those who are there to carry signs and not to study might think twice to carry picket signs.” The measure changed public education, and like-minded government officials in other states followed suit. Soon, other public institutions including the University of Florida and the City University of New York would turn their backs on free college.
As president, Reagan expanded these efforts, joining forces with congressional Republicans and conservative Democrats to pass cuts to federal student aid. This forced students in need — regarded as “undeserving” like “welfare queens” by Reagan’s Secretary of Education Terrell Bell – to resort to taking out student loans. The Reagan administration justified the cuts as part of “a major philosophical shift” to return “to the traditional emphasis on parent and student responsibility for financing college costs.” Meanwhile, the federal government began to encourage student loans, and schools regarded students as consumers.
Critics, including institutions of higher education themselves, viewed the cuts as brutal and predicted admissions from low-income students would drop. Such was the legacy of Reaganomics, of funding tax cuts to the wealthy by slashing social programs. The Republican Party consensus was that students were an economic drain on the country and that taxpayers were not obliged to fund student aid.
We are living with the consequences today. While state and federal governments once covered most of the cost of attending public college, today much more of the burden falls on students. In addition, in an effort to climb the rankings and increase revenue, many public universities have employed the practices of their private counterparts and excluded low-income and working-class students by pursuing wealthier students. Public universities have become less accessible to low-income students and students of color, and the covid pandemic has further exposed the inequities in higher education as fewer needy students are applying to college, in what has been described as an “alarming” nationwide exodus.
And in recent weeks the University of California system – where Reagan first waged the culture wars against public investment in higher education – has become ground zero in the labor union struggle on college campuses. In the largest action by academic workers in US history, 48,000 graduate students employed by the University of California system and represented by the United Auto Workers went on strike for nearly six weeks, demanding higher wages and child care. While 12,000 striking postdoctoral employees and academic researchers reached an agreement and returned to work earlier this month, 36,000 workers remained on strike until last week when they voted to ratify new contracts.
Faculty are also pushing back. Todd Wolfson, a journalism professor and faculty union vice president at Rutgers University, has pushed to address the crisis in higher education, which was made worse by the pandemic, by rethinking it as a “public socialized good that can reinvigorate our democracy and workers on our campuses must be treated with dignity and respect.”
Free or low-cost college used to be the norm, but now, as austerity measures saddle students with debt and create precarious conditions for many academic workers, American politicians create policies that treat higher education as a luxury. And today, college remains a weapon in the culture wars, with attacks on affirmative action, diversity, equity and inclusion, critical race theory and academic freedom. America has the opportunity to return to the days before the Reagan education cuts and restore college as a public good rather than a profit center.
Such a measure would benefit society as a whole and combat racial and economic inequality, which is precisely why conservatives oppose these steps in the first place.