There’s a prevailing attitude that tuition-free higher education – as espoused by Bernie Sanders – is a farfetched notion. Even Hillary Clinton, attempting to move to a more progressive position, hedges on the issue. However, the current hesitancy to advocate free college flies in the face of history.
The City University of New York (CUNY) dates back to the Free Academy founded in 1847 “for the purpose of extending the benefits of education gratuitously to persons who have been pupils in the common schools of the city and county of New York” (Wikipedia). In 1961, the system’s many tuition-free colleges, scattered throughout the five NYC boroughs, were officially consolidated under CUNY – the nation’s largest urban university system. Throughout its history CUNY has served not only the city’s massive indigent population of all races and ethnicities, but the hordes of poor immigrants and their offspring who landed in NYC – many of them Jews who were tacitly “restricted” from the more “prestigious” schools. CUNY alumni are a “Who’s Who” of famously accomplished people – Nobel Prize winners, major political figures, a Supreme Court justice, CEOs of leading corporations, etc. – many of whom would probably never have gone to college were it not free. This history earned New York’s City College the title of “Harvard of the proletariat.”
I personally raised seven children, all of whom attended either tuition-free CUNY or SUNY, the then low-cost state system. These children have all gone on to advanced degrees and successful careers in the professions. This could never happen today. The rush of money to the top of the private pyramid since then has so impoverished the public sector that tuition at CUNY is now $6,330 for in-state residents. As inexpensive as that is compared to most colleges, I, along with most, could never have afforded it for seven kids.
Rather than considering tuition-free college a fantasy, one might properly ask, in light of the above history, “What’s happened to our society that’s turned education into a commodity affordable to only a tiny minority and crushed the socially sensible mandate of the Free Academy under the weight of insurmountable student debt?”
There is plenty of money around – trillions – all of it held in a few private hands and sequestered in havens so that public institutions like CUNY are deprived of the tax dollars needed to sustain them. But rather than address advancing inequality and its concomitant social destruction, we “adjust” by developing the slave mentality of lowered expectations – and the negativism of which it is a symptom. We thrill at any bone thrown our way while the offerings become more and more meager – and despite its glorious history, the very thought of free higher education is scornfully dismissed.
Why it is not the obligation of a democratic society to freely educate its citizens not only to preserve democracy that demands an educated citizenry, but to develop as fully as possible the intellectual potential of all people – a goal of obvious social value?
How farfetched is that?
The Manchester Journal 7/15/16