Current Affairs

What’s New About Free College?

The fight over free education is much older than you think.

There was once a New England politician with an idea. Social and economic changes had made education more important than ever, but access was stubbornly limited to the children of the rich. The answer, this politician thought, was simple: more years of public education, universal, free for all, and provided by the government. 

Of course, this idea didn’t go over well. “How are you going to pay for it?” snarled its opponents. “Isn’t the idea that ordinary people needed extra years of schooling elitist?” they said.  And, of course, the perennial complaint: “Why should I pay for someone else’s child?”  

Sound familiar? It should. Behind Medicare for All, free college was the brightest dividing line of the 2020 Democratic primary. It proved so popular that Joe Biden—not originally a supporter—adopted a watered down version of the plan for his general election platform. But this story isn’t about the 21st century; it’s about the 19th. The New England politician isn’t Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren; it’s Horace Mann. And the idea isn’t free college; it’s free elementary school

We’ve been at this for a long time….

Public education has always been controversial. Free elementary school may seem perfectly natural to us today, but it was once the subject of vicious and intractable political debates, as was the establishment of free, universal high school. 

In the face of this resistance, however, activists and reformers persevered and won. Thanks to their efforts, the story of public education in America, until recently, has been one of continuous expansion. In the late 18th century, when the United States was first created, there was almost no public education at all. By the mid 19th century, just a few generations later, free elementary school was nearly universal. Just a few generations after that came free high school. 

By the mid 20th century, free college looked like the next logical step. Scholars confidently predicted that college and university would soon become as common and freely provided as elementary and high school. 

But it didn’t happen. The one-two punch of stagflation and the Reagan Revolution buried hopes for free college so deep that for a long time we forgot all about it. Now that the free college movement has been revived and picked up by politicians like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren it is treated like a strange new idea. But really, free college is just the next step in our long American tradition of expanding public education. 

It all started with free elementary school

The story of public education in the United States begins with the “common schools” movement. In the decades after independence, political leaders in the early Republic were worried. Democracy required ordinary people to do more than dumbly follow the commands of their social betters; they were expected to actively take part in the decisions of government. This caused no end of anxiety among elites. Could “the people” really do this? Could a political system that depended on the opinion of “every citizen who is worth a few shillings,” as Noah Webster put it, really survive? 

The answer, according to figures ranging from the abolitionist Webster to the slaveholder Thomas Jefferson, was yes—just as long as “the people” were properly educated. The educational “system” of the era—characterized by private academies, individual tutors, and the occasional charity school—was not up to the task. This need for democratic education was the driving motivation behind the establishment of “common schools”—publicly funded, free elementary schools that were available to boys and girls through eighth grade. 

The real founder of the common school movement was Horace Mann, a wealthy lawyer who was appointed as Massachusetts’ first Secretary to the newly created Board of Public Education in 1837. Mann was an extraordinary character: a canny backroom politician, a talented community organizer, a brilliant orator, and a messianic true believer, all rolled into one. He dedicated his strange personality entirely to the creation of common schools (following his own personal edict: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity”).

His first move as Secretary was to visit every one of Massachusetts’ ramshackle ad hoc schools⁠—on horseback⁠—in his first few months on the job. He used the same playbook in every county he visited. First he would make contact with the county’s leading citizens, and lobby them behind closed doors for his common schools system. Then he would hold a countywide convention, open to the public. These conventions were well-attended: since Yankee puritanism was still uncomfortable with the theater, lecturers like Mann were the only entertainment available. At these conventions he would bring his oratorical skills to bear and was often successful in convincing much of his audience. Then he would move on to the next county, leaving behind him a nucleus of organizers, just as committed to the common schools movement as he. These organizers would mobilize their communities against inertia, against those who couldn’t stand to see their taxes go up, and against people like Franklin Dexter, one of the leading men of Massachusetts, who told Mann to his face that the scheme of common schools risked upsetting society’s eternal division between the “commoners who were destined to support themselves from the sweat of their brow” and the “aristocracy of birth and position who were obligated to guide and govern the less fortunate.” 

Mann’s events weren’t just about preaching; he was also listening and learning. At the conclusion of his whirlwind circuit, Mann returned to Boston and started to write a series of reports to the Board that summarized his findings and made recommendations on everything to do with common schools: funding, teacher training, curriculum, and even architecture and design. (Mann helpfully included illustrations of a new type of chair he thought would help students’ learning.) These reports made a huge impression. It was largely thanks to their persuasiveness⁠—and Mann’s diligent, state-wide organizing⁠—that over the following few years, Massachusetts became the first state to set up a system of public elementary school.

Mann’s success in the Bay State inspired a nationwide movement. His reports were distributed across the country and served as the basis for new common school systems in states like Iowa and Wisconsin. His personality and fervour inspired other reformers like Henry Barnard in Connecticut and Rhode Island, and Catharine Beecher in Ohio. 

These reformers believed that education should be the “great equalizer,” as Mann put it, given to every child, “whether male or female, black or white, rich or poor, bond or free.” This was a beautiful sentiment, but the reality was, as ever, at odds with the theory. The common schools movement was mostly led by Protestant, white, bourgeois men, and it reflected all their characteristic vices. Boys and girls, for instance, had dramatically different curricula, with the latter emphasizing domesticity and preparation for motherhood. Children of color did not get an equal education to their white peers. Even a relatively progressive state like Massachusetts did not integrate its public education system until 1855 and, of course, vicious racial inequalities persist in every state to this day. 

Catholicism and non-Anglo immigrants were treated harshly by the curriculum as well. Leaders of the common schools movement saw Catholicism as a menacing, alien ideology, and many of them wanted to use religious indoctrination in the common schools as a way to stamp it out. As common schooling spread to other states, Catholics in cities like New York rioted, forced the creation of elected school boards, and used their newfound political power to start removing religious bias from the public school curricula. 

The common school movement also faced more familiar sounding opponents. Before the invention of common schools, the children of the wealthy received a privately funded education, either at home or in private schools called “academies.” Suddenly being asked to pay taxes so that other people’s children could go to school rubbed these wealthy parents the wrong way. They argued for “rate bills” that would charge tuition for public schools, sometimes with a provision for subsidizing poor students—essentially the 19th century version of means testing. This was “access” to education for those who couldn’t afford it, tuition for those who could, but importantly meant that people without children in public school would not have to pay into the system. Some wealthy opponents of common schools went even further, categorically opposing common schools on the ground that educating working class people at all would lead to sedition and dissent.  

The opposition had traction. In Kenosha, Wisconsin, as the battle raged back and forth, common schools were created, abolished, and then created again, all in the space of a few years. In New York, taxpayer opposition stalled the common schools movement for 20 years. In Massachusetts, opponents of common schools almost had Horace Mann fired. In the words of public education historian Carl Kaestle, opponents of public education were so powerful that the outcome of the common schools movement  was “far from certain.”  

Thankfully, in the face of this opposition, Mann and the other middle-class reformers had a powerful ally: the early labor movement. Workingmen’s associations—the forerunners of organized labor—enthusiastically supported common schools. Mann and the other high-minded reformers wrote pamphlets and lobbied, but it was early labor unions that lent the movement crucial grassroots muscle. 

Which is not to say labor leaders and common school reformers agreed on everything. While the reformers acted out of noblesse oblige, workingmen’s associations often took a much more radical line. “Give us our rights,” bellowed the Mechanics’ Free Press, “and we shall not need your charity.”  The system of common schools would, according to the Albany Mechanics Society, wrest control of “immense sums now perverted to the aristocratical nurseries of a wealthy few” and put that money to the “useful instruction of all.” As is the case with so many of our public goods, we have labor unions to thank for our system of free elementary schools. 

This alliance between bourgeois reformers and grassroots activists bore fruit. By the 1870s, the last Northern state had abolished its rate bill, and the principle, if not quite yet the reality, of free elementary school education had taken root. 

Next: free high school

The next great transformation of American public education was the establishment of near-universal public high school. Thanks to the success of the common school movement, there was no real attempt to stop the spread of public high schools through the political process; the precedent of common schools proved too popular to argue against. Instead, opponents of free high school tried to sabotage the movement in the one place the will of the voters didn’t matter: the courts.  

Thankfully, the court-based strategy was defeated decisively in the 1874 Michigan Supreme Court case of Stuart v. Kalamazoo. Kalamazoo, Michigan had established a public high school in the 1850s—relatively early. But in the 1870s, a clique of wealthy locals decided they didn’t feel like paying taxes to support it any more. Charles Stuart, a high-powered attorney and former U.S. Senator, backed by two wealthy bankers, sued. He argued that the Michigan Constitution only allowed taxes to establish primary schools, and that establishing secondary schools was unconstitutional. 

Rather than deciding the case on narrow legal grounds, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cooley—one of the best-known legal scholars of the era—penned a monumental paean to public education, “not merely in the rudiments but in the enlarged sense.” The “enlarged” education, according to Cooley, was not just for “those whose accumulated wealth enabled them to pay for it,” but must be “supplied to rich and poor alike.” The opinion galvanized reformers, who set about lobbying state legislatures, at first to encourage, then later to require, local governments to begin setting up free high schools. 

Most historians, like Gerald Gutek in his An Historical Introduction to American Education, agree that just as the common schools movement was driven by political changes, the free high school movement was driven by economic changes. The rapid industrialization characterizing the beginning of the 20th century increased the nation’s store of wealth, meaning there was more available to spend on education. And the new large, bureaucratic corporations needed workers with new skills: as organizations grew larger, written directives replaced verbal understandings and mathematical calculations replaced rules of thumb. The private sector needed workers with skills beyond those taught in elementary school, like enhanced literacy and mathematics.

Big Business may have supported the free high school movement to get better trained workers, but like the common schools movement, the political coalition supporting free high school was broad. In addition to large business owners, socialists supported free high schools to counteract the injustices of capitalism. Middle class reformers of the more high-minded type supported free high schools as a way to broaden the horizons of every child, viewing culture and learning as the common birthright of all. These factions (and many others) often clashed over the structure and curricula of the new schools, arriving at the current model through a process of debate, activism, and compromise (which is still going on to this day). 

By far the most powerful group supporting free high schools, however, was the parents of the new industrial middle class in this era who supported free high schools, as they increasingly recognized that high school was their children’s ticket to higher-paying jobs and a better, more fulfilled life. (Interestingly, it was the parents who most effectively pushed the academic, less market-oriented side of high school. One technocrat in 1900, irritated that job training was not a bigger part of the high school curriculum, sniffed that the “uncultivated parents” who were pushing the scholarly side of high school must be oblivious to the “practical concerns of life.”)

Thanks to the free high school movement, the United States led the world in public education. Economic historians Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz point out that by the middle of the 20th century, over 80% of American teens attended high school full time, while “no European country” had a rate over 25%. Immigrants from all over the world raced to enroll their children in the United States’ unusually generous system and, just as with the common schools, these new arrivals soon exercised their rightful political power in shaping and governing the emerging school system. 

With opponents of free high school defeated in the courts and with broad support from diverse segments of American society, high school enrollment doubled every decade starting in 1890 until the 1930s, when high school became the nearly universal experience it is today. Historian William Reese notes that between 1890 and 1920, there was on average one high school built in America every day. The momentum of the free high school movement was poised to move to the next logical phase.

Free college was supposed to follow

With free elementary school and free high school firmly established in the American social landscape, reformers set their sights on free college. In the 1960s, it was widely and confidently assumed that college would be free and universal in the very near future. Martin Trow, a scholar of education, wrote in 1961 that “There is no reason to believe that the United States will stop short of providing opportunities and facilities for nearly universal experience of some kind of higher education.”

Trow and others had every reason to think free college was around the corner. In 1944, the GI Bill of Rights made higher education possible for eight million veterans. There were a lot of them at the time: World War II was just ending and a huge number of soldiers, sailors, and marines from all walks of life were demobilizing. Even so, the G.I. Bill helped ten times more new students than policy makers expected, dramatically expanding the population of American college graduates. State governments got in on the act, spending unprecedented sums to make higher education available to civilians, just as the federal government had done for veterans. California led the way with the Master Plan for Higher Education: a unified system of research institutions, graduate schools, four-year universities (with free tuition for residents), and community colleges. This system represented an investment of many hundreds of millions of dollars, and key components of it were funded from local taxes in the same manner as the existing high schools and elementary schools. It was around this time as well that New York created its SUNY system, and other states like Virginia founded their community college systems. And in 1965, President Johnson pushed Congress to pass the Higher Education Act. This law dedicated vast amounts of money to college aid programs, many targeting women and racial minorities. (Despite these new resources, Marshall Steinbaum argues cogently in the Boston Review that this law was in fact the death knell for education as a public good, because it funded students individually rather than collectively in institutions.)

The period from the passage of the GI Bill to the early 1970s was the closest the U.S. has come to free college (so far). The 1970s brought “stagflation,” economic stagnation combined with inflation. Suddenly under economic pressure, states and the federal government backed off spending on higher education. College costs went up, family incomes went down. Then, in 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected, ushering in a new ideological paradigm that would ultimately halt two century’s worth of social progress in free education. 

The “Reagan Revolution” was fuelled in large part by animosity towards higher education. Reagan himself had it in for colleges and universities ever since he read a report by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI that accused the University of California of facilitating “communist infiltration” in the 1960s. As an actor he could do little except offer to make a documentary version of the FBI report. (Hoover declined.) But once he was elected Governor, one of his first acts was to fire Clark Kerr, the President of the University of California who, more than anyone else, had been responsible for that state’s exemplary and egalitarian approach to higher education. 

The movement conservatives who finally brought Reagan to the White House in 1980 were well aware of the political threat posed by higher education. According to Christopher Newfield, author of Unmaking Public Higher Education, the culture war as we know it today—with its fights over college campuses, “tenured radicals,” and “political correctness”—began in earnest around this time, a product of the right’s effort to discredit mass higher education. By attacking higher education, conservatives set the stage for a fundamental shift in how Americans approached the concept of public education itself. 

From Horace Mann in the 1830s up to the 1970s, the dominant way Americans thought about education was as an equalizing public good: something that was, in principle at least, equally available to all and equally controlled by all. The Reagan Revolutionaries successfully replaced this “public good” theory of education with a “market forces” theory. Under this new regime, education was thought of as a privilege, not a right, available only to those “successful” enough to deserve education, and useful only to the extent it produced willing, well-trained workers. 

Unsurprisingly, financial support for public higher education began to decline during this time. After all, under the new dominant ideology, investment in public goods wasn’t just impractical because of temporary economic pressure, it was considered bad on its own terms. This decline got much worse during the 2008 financial crisis, got a little better during the recovery, but never really stopped. In 2018, for the first time the majority of funds going to public colleges and universities came from private tuition payments, rather than government appropriations. 

Where we are now

Even today, Reagan-era ideology works to erase our tradition of public school expansion. In a world where “markets good, government bad” serves as the animating principle, the idea of universal government-provided college seems alien. Meanwhile, public elementary school and high school, though they are too popular and ingrained to take on directly, are systematically sabotaged by funding cuts, charter schools, and voucher schemes. 

This ideology blinds us to the fact that the political, social, and economic necessity of free college has never been greater. The political and social case for free college today is just as strong as it was for the common schools of the early 19th century. Now, just as then, our society is rapidly changing: the racial and sexual hierarchies that have previously structured society are subject to unprecedented, widespread criticism. Our politics are changing too, as old dogmas are crushed under the weight of their own failures. The new social and political landscape will be more volatile than before, but hopefully it will be more equal too. Navigating it will require open-mindedness and critical thinking—traits which the right kind of free college can impart.  

Economically, the historical case for free college is cut-and-dried. The economic benefits of a college degree today correspond roughly to the economic benefits one would receive with a high school degree in the early 1900s. Compare Goldin and Katz estimating the 1915 return on a high school degree at 11% with a study from the New York Fed estimating the return today of a college degree at 14%. The fact that this alone hasn’t already produced a system of free, universal college shows just how successful Reagan-era market fundamentalism has been in shifting our ideological priorities.

Free college is an idea firmly rooted in American history, a continuation of a tradition that stretches back to the very founding of the United States. Politicians like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have promised to keep fighting for  this tradition no matter who wins in November. And yet, mainstream pundits have proved unable to see free college as anything other than a fantasy. Their smirking dismissiveness—“how are you going to pay for that?”—represents a profound failure of political imagination. 

If only they knew their past, perhaps they could imagine a better future. 


For readers looking to learn more, the following books are terrific sources of information on the history of public education in the United States. They are also the sources for most of the information in this article:

As a general resource: America’s Public Schools, by William Reese; An Historical Introduction to American Education, by Gerlad Gutek.

On common schools: Horace Mann: A Biography, by Jonathan Messereli; Pillars of the Republic, by Carl Kaestle; Democracy’s Schools, by Johann Neem. 

On secondary education: The Second Transformation of American Secondary Education, by Martin Trow; The Race Between Education and Technology, by Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz. 

On higher education: A History of American Higher Education, by John Thelin; Unmaking the Public University, by Christopher Newfield.

Cover image: The Horace Mann School, 1894. Image from Boston City Archives courtesy of Flickr.

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