Some Americans scoff at the idea of free public college tuition. Or they peg Sen. Bernie Sanders as some kind of a new age dreamer. Why? America once had free public college in California. For awhile, the students in that state paid only a nominal fee for public higher education.
The high-water mark for public education in California was the 1960 Donahoe Act, better known as the Master Plan for Higher Education. In its details, the “Master Plan” was a complex and unwieldy piece of legislation, an interlocking set of legislative benchmarks, expectations, funding commitments, and philosophical principles. But at its heart, it was actually quite simple and intuitive: the Master Plan was nothing more than a blanket commitment from the state to educate all the California students who wanted an education and, in doing so, to facilitate the kind of class mobility that has placed public education at the center of American civic life. The Plan was masterminded by UC president Clark Kerr and signed into California law by Governor Pat Brown, Democrats who brought to completion much of the work of their Republican predecessors. It was politically contentious, but was far from being a revolutionary document. Years later, Kerr would recall the early 1960s as an essentially conservative period, in which the development and momentum of the preceding decades were consolidated, systematized, and rationalized.
It is also surprising to learn that the free college that originated in California, was not some weird liberal idea. It was elevated by moderate Republicans who believed their kids had every right to free learning. They took great pride in it. As well they should. Look at the University of California Berkeley, UCLA and other public universities in the state. They were and still are great, vibrant institutions.
In the free college period in California, let’s use a magnifying glass to view U.C. Berkeley as an example. Berkeley exemplified the best that could be found in any higher education institution, but, sadly, it is also where free college ended in California and as an example for free tuition for public higher education in the rest of the country.
UC Berkeley was considered sacredly bipartisan. In the 1950s this university laid the contributions to nuclear energy and the aerospace industry—made weapons too. It is where the Cold War was being won.
Also, don’t forget that J. Robert Oppenheimer, who directed the Manhattan Project, was a physics professor at Berkeley from 1923 to 1949. The American theoretical physicist led the team to find the atomic bomb. While that might make pacifists cringe, it certainly shows the university had mettle.
U.C. Berkeley to this day is proudly considered a quirky university with many diverse majors that lead to great innovation in both the sciences and the arts. Check out the number of scientists and more. There are Nobel laureates, Pulitzer Prize and Emmy Award winners. There are many National Humanities medals too. Berkeley has something for everyone it seems.
Berkeley’s former president Clark Kerr is credited for building what was considered the nation’s best state system of public universities.
Kerr opened smaller satellite campuses in San Diego and various other California locations to deal with the burgeoning student population. He also initiated many community colleges for students interested in vocational education and eventual transfer to larger universities—much like community colleges today.
And it was pretty much free!
So what went wrong? Why did California lose its free tuition system?
Many believe Governor Ronald Reagan wanted to privatize colleges and bring back tuition.
He appeared to detest Kerr’s apparent decision not to rein in students protesting during the Vietnam War. Reagan resented the student uprising and the students themselves. He sent police to the university and insinuated that students would not act out or protest if they paid for their schooling.
Reagan eventually ousted Kerr from his job as university president. It was a bitter episode at the time and free tuition was gone.
Certainly, the story is much more involved than I am writing here. Which-ever side one might support, the fact is, that era was a troubling time. We are in a different period now and free public tuition sounds like a viable solution to the insurmountable debt students are accruing.
The point is California once had free public tuition to public universities and for a long time it worked!
Every student who works hard and does well in school should get free college tuition upon acceptance to a public university. They should be able to work hard in college, earn their degree, and be debt free when they get out.
This says that we adults believe in America’s young people! We are saying you are worth the gamble and we believe you will succeed. This should lead to innovation and a country that prospers.
Why would Americans not at least entertain this idea? Why would they argue against their own best interests and those of their children?
California once had free tuition to public universities. If they could do it then, we can do it again. It takes the will of the people and serious planning, but it is not some pie in the sky idea that has no hope.
It is a very real idea that would make America great! Other countries do it. We should too.
Bady, Aaron and Mike Konzal. “From Master Plano Plan to No Plan: The Slow Death of Public Higher Education.” Dissent. Fall 2012.
Vega, Lilia. The History of UC Tuition Since 1868. The Daily Clog. The Daily Californian Blog. December 22, 2014.
Jilani, Zaid. “College Used to be Virtually Free in California.” Progressive Change Campaign Committee. March 19, 2013.
University of California, Berkeley. Wikipedia.
Terry Kalb says
NYC had free CUNY tuition when I graduated HS in 1970, and SUNY was very inexpensive- $400 per semester.
Nancy Bailey says
Thanks, Terry. I graduated the same time and remember it being inexpensive at my public college in Michigan too. Later, I believe they gave stipends to those wanting to study special education in states across the country.
Mark Higbee says
CUNY lost its no tuition status in the fiscal crisis of New York City, circa 1075, which produced massive cuts in public services and public education, K-16. I believe that CUNY and California were the only totally tuition free systems in the country, but many had very low fees.
Máté Wierdl says
Thanks, Reagan! 🙁
Free to students maybe! But somebody pays. ———-Taxpayers
Theresa Bergen says
I graduated HS in 1965 and won a place at Hunter College one of the senior colleges of the City University of NY. The others were Brooklyn College and City College. My admission was based on my SAT scores, Regents exams and class rank. You had to be VERY high up in the first two categories. Class rank didn’t count so much because it was not fair to kids who attended the nerd schools. IT WAS FREE and had been for decades. The story of why tuition was imposed is told in countless books and not my subject. My point is it existed. And could again. Every state and major city should have a publicly funded higher ed system. Just know that cost is not the issue. The issue is: if all the nerds can go to elite institutions why pay tuition to the Harvards and Stanfords? Always, always follow the money.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you for sharing your story, Theresa.