In his 2014 State of the State Address, the Governor of Tennessee proposed making college free for graduating high school students. Having myself been the beneficiary of a free public university education, I can only applaud the Governor's initiative and wish he would go all the way and move toward free 4-year college and university education for all who are qualified!
I was part of the last generation of those who received a tuition-free education at New York's City College. Officially entitled The City College of the City University of New York (but more commonly still referred to by its old name, The City College of New York, or better yet City College, or City, or CCNY), City College is the oldest of the City University of New York's 23 components. City College was originally founded in 1847 as The Free Academy of the City of New York, as a combination prep school-college to provide the children of immigrants and the poor access to free higher education based solely on academic merit. It was followed by Hunter College in 1870 and by Brooklyn College in 1930. City’s mission (and that of the later branches of the New York City system) was well articulated by its first President, Horace Webster, on the occasion of its formal opening in 1849: “The experiment is to be tried, whether the children of the people, the children of the whole people, can be educated; and whether an institution of the highest grade, can be successfully controlled by the popular will, not by the privileged few.”
For over a century, City College exemplified the political progressivism and social openness that made New York City a destination for so many and made it such a great place to grow up and live in. In an era when college education was largely the domain of the privileged few, thousands of smart sons and daughters of poor immigrants attended City - such that it came to be called “the Proletarian Harvard.” Indeed, City College claims 9 Nobel laureates among its alumni - all graduated in City’s “Golden Age” the era from the 1930s through the 1950s. In that golden era, City was widely known for its political openness and radicalism. It has even been claimed that City’s Shepard Hall (photo) may have been the only place on earth where fair and open debate between Trotskyists and Stalinists regularly took place! Much of that academic and cultural vitality was still evident when I too joined the ranks of “the Proletarian Harvard” in 1968. Without City’s free tuition, it is unlikely that I would have ever been able to get a college education. Without its vibrant intellectual culture, it is unlikely that I would have gone on to graduate study at one of the nation’s premier universities, as I was able to do in 1972,As a result of the campus disruptions of 1969 (which I confess to having been in sympathy with at the time), the City University moved forward with an “open admissions” plan, which took the tradition of free education to what some saw as its next logical step. So, in the 1970s, the City University’s component colleges were opened to many who were academically unprepared to attend college – a move which weakened City’s academic reputation and taxed New York City's finances at a time when the city could ill afford it. One tragic result was that City started charging tuition in 1976, thus ending once and for all the great experiment of “the Proletarian Harvard.”
When City College began that great experiment, the academic quality and seriousness of elementary and high school education could be widely presumed. By the late 20th-century, that was no longer the case. As part of its open admissions policy , The City University made a real effort to provide remedial education. (The summer I graduated, I worked in curricular guidance, identifying appropriate remedial courses for incoming freshmen.) Since the 1990s, that essential task of academic remediation has been relegated to the system’s community colleges. Nor is New York's situation now unique. Nationally, it is now estimated that more than half of those beginning any post-secondary education are academically unprepared.
The crisis of a generation graduating burdened by out-of-control college debt highlights the need to recover New York’s successful 19th-century commitment to truly free college education. But the contemporary condition of elementary and secondary schooling in the United States means that that ideal can only work with a concurrent commitment to fixing the content of American education at all levels.