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In 1837, a remarkable politician, Horace Mann, became Massachusetts’ Secretary of Education. He argued that universal, public, nonsectarian education in culturally diverse common schools was imperative for our new nation. Mann’s idea spread like wildfire. The free common school concept was adopted in every state in the union.

Free College Tuition Plan

Bernie's Free College Tuition Plan Isn’t Really Radical—Robert Nelson

After the Civil War, the free tuition principle was expanded to include higher education. It worked for a century.

A Pathway for Immigrant’s Children

In 1966 I finished college. I joined my sister as the first generation of our family to cross the divide. My father was an immigrant; my mother was the daughter of immigrants. The family had little wealth to show despite their life of hard work.

How could low paid immigrant families send their kids to college? It was simple. I graduated from the City College of New York. My sister graduated from Brooklyn College. Both schools were tuition free. That’s the way things were a half-century ago.

CCNY was founded as the Free Academy of the City of New York in 1847. Its mission was to provide the sons of immigrants and the poor with access to college education. In 1870, Hunter College was founded for New York’s young women. In 1930, Brooklyn College became New York’s third tuition-free college.

For more than a century the taxpayers of New York provided free higher education to all who qualified. Graduates of that system include a child of immigrants from Jamaica, Secretary of State Colin Powell (CCNY ’58), the daughter of an immigrant from Austria, Sen. Barbara Boxer (Brooklyn College ’62), and former NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, (CCNY ’62).

CCNY awarded bachelor’s degrees to more Nobel laureates than any other school in the world. The most celebrated researcher to have studied there was Jonas Salk (CCNY ’34), the creator of the polio vaccine.

CCNY produced remarkable pioneers of social change. Gerald Austin (CCNY ’65), a political campaign consultant, challenged American racism. He managed the 1988 presidential campaign of the Rev. Jesse Jackson and proved that an African-American presidential candidate could gather mass support from nonblack voters. As an outgrowth, 20 years later Barack Obama became President.

Brooklyn College also welcomed a son of Polish immigrants, Vermont senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. He entered in 1959 and finished his degree at University of Chicago.

Some might argue that tuition free higher education was gutted by short-sighted public university administrators of the 1960s who could not pass up cheap loan money. Others point to the avarice and greed of our under-regulated banks.

Sen. Sanders has proposed a national program of free higher education for all at public colleges and universities. New Yorkers would return to a system that had worked for a century before ending 50 years ago.

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Why Did It Work?

Free higher education was not limited to New York. The Michigan territory established what was to become the University of Michigan in 1817. The University of California was established at Berkeley in 1866.

The economic premise of free college instruction is that educated students have higher income over their lifetimes. Under a progressive income tax system they pay back the cost of their education — with interest. In fact, they do.

What Went Wrong?

In 1958, Nelson Rockefeller (Dartmouth, ’30) became the governor of New York. In the early 1960s he proposed that CCNY charge tuition in return for state aid. That same year, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, later to become the National Direct Student Loan Program. Students could borrow directly from Uncle Sam. The loans accrued no interest until graduation, afterwards it was three percent. Public universities around the country bought in to the proverbial “free lunch.”

Soon private banks entered the scene, convincing Congress that taxpayers should back the student loans while the banks would manage them — collecting interest, of course. Student loans were soon marketed like home equity loans. Taxpayers collateralized the debt; banks pocketed the interest. Public and private educational institutions expanded.

A modified student loan scheme now infects every public education system in the country. Students pay interest rates of 7 percent, not after graduation, but from the day they sign the loan papers at the bank.

Some might argue that tuition free higher education was gutted by short-sighted public university administrators of the 1960s who could not pass up cheap loan money. Others point to the avarice and greed of our under-regulated banks.

Getting It Wrong

Today, free higher education is part of our national debate. Regrettably, it comes at a time when many presidential candidates apparently have quite unwholesome relationships with investment banks. They dismiss free college tuition as, ‘Pie in the Sky’.

Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (Wellesley ’69) has strongly opposed Sen. Sanders’ proposal for tuition free college for all. She said, “I disagree with free college for everybody. I don’t think taxpayers should be paying to send Donald Trump’s kids to college.” (Trump’s degree is from Wharton School of Economics, 1968).

Clinton fails to understand the teachings of Horace Mann. The point of the American common school was to provide a common platform for all children regardless of class. I would have loved to have mingled with Donald Trump if he had gone to CCNY. We both might have learned something.

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Horace Mann had a radical idea. He was right 200 years ago. Bernie Sanders is correct today. We did it before, let’s do it again.

Robert M. Nelson
Pasadena Weekly