Financing tuition through taxes works for other countries. In 2014, Germany abolished tuition for all students from the European Union. Ireland, France, Norway, Sweden and Denmark charge no tuition for all European Union students, and provide low-interest loans to cover other college expenses: in Sweden, at a rate of just 0.13 percent. In Australia and Britain, public tuition is half what Americans pay, and in Israel, a 10th. In Australia, students repay loans as a percentage of income when they reach a livable income threshold.
The United States also once financed education as a public good. In 1888, the College of William & Mary, in Williamsburg, Va., began to forgive tuition in exchange for two years of teaching in Virginia’s public schools. Federal land grant universities established after the Civil War were free for decades, and remained low cost until the 1980s. The City University of New York was free until 1976. Stanford was free to California residents for 30 years after it opened its doors in 1891.
Charging tuition was a political decision, one embraced by city, state and federal politicians as voters pushed for lower and lower taxes in the 1960s and ’70s. California led the way. As governor from 1967 to 1975, Ronald Reagan ended free tuition at the University of California, cutting higher education funding by 20 percent and declaring that taxpayers should not “subsidize intellectual curiosity.” As president, Reagan made this national policy, galvanizing the shift to tuition-dependence, and student loans, that we live with today.
Public universities took the biggest hit. Between 1987 and 2012, public funding dropped by 25 to 30 percent. And the cutting continues. Last year, Alaska cut its higher education budget by $135 million, more than the entire sum that supported three campuses.
From 1980 to 2014, tuition increased nationally by 260 percent, more than twice the rate of other consumer expenses. Federal policy supported a tuition-based revenue system by shifting funding to student loans; by 2013, they accounted for over half of the $75 billion federal higher education budget. Less than $3.8 billion was dedicated to funding educational infrastructure, most fulfilling federal obligations to historically black and tribal colleges.