On island USA, we are debating whether it is unfair and unjust to forgive some college loans. We are oblivious to the rest of the planet, where college education in developed countries is of course free.
We are also oblivious to our own historic role in educating masses of people, despite powerful opposition. In 1857, President James Buchanan vetoed the bill that would have established federal-aided universities, declaring that it violated state’s rights and set a dangerous precedent of federal aid to education. But in 1862 a similar bill, the Morrill Act, passed thanks the wartime absence of congressmen from the slaveholding states; this established the land-grant colleges for working-class young men—and, later, women. The US was also a world leader in guarantying a free twelve-grade education for all children. Although the southern states sabotaged the national law with their phony “separate but equal” schools for black children, the post-World War II civil rights movement in 1954 (in Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka) made that free twelve-grade public education at least the law of the land.
The 1960s and early 1970s seemed to promise greater progress. But then the Empire struck back.
At the time, City University of New York (CUNY) was the nation’s third largest system of public higher education, behind the University of California and the State University of New York. Never, since its first college was founded in 1847, had CUNY charged tuition. For well over a century, it had thus been a boulevard to success for many tens of thousands of poor and working-class New Yorkers.
In April 1969, students sat in at CUNYs City College, denouncing what they saw as the university’s discrimination against people of color and the poor in admissions policy. In response, the Board of Higher Education initiated a program of open admissions whereby every graduate of a New York City high school could enroll in the city’s famous university. Now combining open admissions with free tuition, CUNY appeared as the vanguard in the democratization of American higher education.
At this point, a fierce counteroffensive against the progressive movements on campus was launched and coordinated by the White House, occupied since February by Richard Nixon. In June, President Nixon delivered a speech at General Beadle State College in South Dakota in which he equated “drugs, crime, campus revolts, racial discord, [and] draft resistance,” expressed horror at the “patterns of deception” in American life stemming from contempt for moral, legal, and intellectual standards, and denounced the campus movement as central to this national crisis:
We have long considered our colleges and universities citadels of freedom, where the rule of reason prevails. Now both the process of freedom and the rule of reason are under attack. At the same time, our colleges are under pressure to collapse their educational standards, in the misguided belief that this would promote “opportunity.”
Vice President Agnew (not yet indicted for his own criminal activities) was even more explicit. Speaking at an Iowa Republican fund-raising dinner in April 1970, Agnew argued that there was too high a percentage of Black students in college and condemned “the violence emanating from Black student militancy.” Declaring that “College, at one time considered a privilege, is considered to be a right today,” he singled out open admissions as one of the main ways “by which unqualified students are being swept into college on the wave of the new socialism.”
Later in 1970, Roger Freeman‑-a key educational adviser to Nixon then working for the reelection of California Governor Ronald Reagan‑-spelled out quite precisely what the conservative counterattack was aimed at preventing:
We are in danger of producing an educated proletariat. That’s dynamite! We have to be selective on who we allow to go through higher education. If not, we will have a large number of highly trained and unemployed people.
The two most menacing institutional sources of the danger described by Freeman were obviously those two great public university systems charging no tuition: the University of California and the City University of New York. Governor Reagan was able to wipe out free tuition at the University of California in 1970, but that left CUNY to menace American society. The vital task of crippling CUNY was to go on for six more years, outlasting the Nixon administration and falling to his appointed successor, Gerald Ford.
Speaking to the National Press Club in late 1975, President Ford explicitly declared that he would withhold federal aid from New York City, which was then in a severe financial crisis, until it eliminated the self-indulgent luxury of open admissions and free tuition at the City University. To be financially responsible, the President declared, New York must no longer be a city that “operates one of the largest universities in the world, free of tuition for any high school graduate, rich or poor, who wants to attend.” Ford’s press secretary, Ron Nessen, speaking in highly charged code language, explained the President’s determination to block federal aid for New York City, which he compared to “a wayward daughter hooked on heroin”: “you don’t give her $100 a day to support her habit. You make her go cold turkey to break her habit.”
Finally in 1976, the assault on public education succeeded in terminating the City University’s 129-year policy of not charging for tuition, thus wiping out the last stronghold of free public higher education in the United States. Simultaneously, the university fired hundreds of young faculty members hired to implement the open admissions program.
In the decades since then, with free tuition looking like a relic of some ancient past or a dream of some utopian future, tuition and other charges have kept rising at public colleges and universities across the nation. Combined with reduced budgets for scholarships, these escalating costs have made it ever more difficult for poor and working-class students to obtain higher education, a trend accelerated in the late 1990s by open attacks on affirmative action. Then in 1998 and 1999, CUNY and the poor of New York City again became targets, as the administrations of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Governor George Pataki moved to forbid remedial education at any of the city’s four-year colleges.
Meanwhile, just as the state and federal governments were taking away the funds that could open up the universities, they were beginning to spend enormous sums to build alternative institutions for the poor–with exceptionally easy entrance requirements and lengthy enrollments for people of color. From 1976, the year when free higher education was eradicated, until the end of the century, on average a new prison was constructed in America every week. The prison population went from under 200,000 in 1971 to almost two million in 1999 as America became the prison capital of the world. The state of California alone now ran the second largest prison system in the world. By the late 1990s, many states had followed California’s lead in spending more money for prisons than for higher education. Across the nation far more young black men were in prison than in college.
By then felony convictions had stripped the vote from 4.1 million American citizens. This has been culture war with a vengeance—and a very effective strategy.
And let’s not forget another goal of the strategy. The late sixties and early seventies taught the ruling class that a using a conscript to wage an empire’s wars is playing with fire. In my four decades of teaching at the Newark campus of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, many of my students avoided loans by signing up with the military. Many were sent to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Will we ever to back to talking about free higher education?
Adapted from Vietnam & Other American Fantasies.