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Free Community College

Been There, But Not Done It
by andrew l. yarrow

andrew yarrow is a former New York Times reporter.

Published June 21, 2012


It’s like déjà vu all over again.”  —Yogi Berra

Yes, Yogi’s axiom of life (and maybe public policy?) is still relevant: when President Biden proposed making community college free in his April address to Congress, he might well have said, “The time has come to make education through the 14th grade available in the same way that high school education is now available.”

These words were, in fact, written in a report by President Harry Truman’s Commission on Higher Education 74 years ago. When Truman (still basking in his surprise election triumph over Thomas Dewey) outlined his bold Fair Deal to a joint session of Congress in January 1949, he forcefully urged adoption of the Commission’s proposal, saying that the United States “cannot maintain prosperity without a fair distribution of opportunity.”

Hence, when Biden made the seemingly radical call to spend $109 billion over a decade for two-year colleges “so that every student has the ability to obtain a degree or certificate,” he wasn’t the first president to push two free years of college. In fact, he wasn’t even the second: President Obama took a run at the idea with his America’s College Promise proposal in 2015.

On the Shoulders of Giants

While Biden certainly deserves credit for swimming against the tide of distrust of government that may or may not have crested in the Trump years, this portion of his economic agenda does not stand up to comparisons with the Truman plan in terms of boldness. The goal of no-tuition higher education predated Truman, of course: the 1868 charter for the University of California and the 1911 Arizona state constitution both included aspirational statements that public university tuition should be free. But none before or since has been as far reaching as what was proposed in 1947.

Truman’s 29-member commission not only called for community college to be free, but also for the federal government to take the lead in helping states and localities build hundreds of new two-year institutions that would bring higher education within commuting distance for millions.

Citing “a new and rapidly growing need for trained semi-professional workers in distributive and service industries,” the report affirmed that colleges “must provide programs for the development of other abilities than those involved in academic aptitude.” Nonetheless, it also declared that the curriculum at these two-year public colleges “must not be crowded with vocational and technical courses to the exclusion of general education,” saying that community colleges should not only prepare students for careers but also provide the “transmission of a common cultural heritage toward a common citizenship.”

The bipartisan commission, chaired by George F. Zook, president of the American Council on Education, thought big — very big. Along with making the first two years of public four-year colleges free, the commission wanted to double overall college enrollment to 4.6 million by 1960, while more than doubling the ranks of professors to 350,000 and expanding federal support for medical training.

The cost of achieving all this was estimated to be about $3.25 billion per year, or about $39 billion in 2021 dollars. By comparison, the Biden plan, which has deficit hawks in a tizzy, clocks in at just $11 billion annually. Consider, too, that the aforementioned $3 billion represented more than 1 percent of U.S. GDP in 1947; the Biden plan’s $11 billion is just one-twentieth of 1 percent of the current GDP. To be sure, specific comparisions can be misleading because the Biden money would come on top of substantial federal support for higher ed. But there is no getting past the fact that Truman was asking for a financial commitment that far exceeds the Biden administration’s plans for federal aid.

One study funded by the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations and commended by leaders of elite universities argued that there simply were not enough intelligent people to benefit from college.

The commission was ahead of its time in other ways, too. Against the objection of its members from the South, the majority insisted on confronting the shame of racial segregation. “One of the gravest charges to which American society is subject is that of failing to provide equality of educational opportunity for its youth,” the commissioners wrote, recognizing that the quality of Americans’ education depends on “the family or the community into which they happened to be born or, worse still, the color of their skin or the religion of their parents.”

Dreams Deferred

Perhaps to be expected, the pushback was formidable. Despite the popularity of the 1944 GI Bill, which provided educational benefits to millions of World War II veterans, the idea of making higher education accessible to all Americans was not an easy sell. Opponents said that it was too expensive and would usher in federal control of education. (While at the time states’ rights dogma was mostly a cover for tolerance of segregation in the South, the evils of peacetime federal intrusion were rarely questioned by conservatives from other regions.)

Some uber-respectable experts even worried that the country would end up with a glut of college graduates. One study funded by the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations and commended by leaders of elite universities argued that there simply were not enough intelligent people to benefit from college.

Truman’s free higher education plan died in Congress, just as his similarly radical universal health care and full employment proposals were scuttled by cries of “creeping socialism.” It took a half-century for ideas of free community college to resurface in public discourse. As community colleges rapidly grew in the late 20th century and the mantra of “workforce development” came into vogue during the Clinton administration, policymakers again started to think about the need to bolster support for two-year institutions and their students.

In Tennessee, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam initiated a program in 2014 that made community college free for high school graduates who met eligibility criteria and performed community service. Oregon, Missouri, Kentucky and about a dozen other states developed similar initiatives.

Obama’s own plan was, in fact, also based on Haslam’s Tennessee Promise. But, just as Obamacare, which was modeled after Republican Gov. Mitt Romney’s universal health care plan in Massachusetts, met a wall of Republican opposition, the provenance of America’s College Promise plan meant that Republicans wouldn’t consider it.

While most Americans find tuition-free community college appealing, opponents are finding much to dislike in the Biden approach. New Hampshire’s Republican Gov. Chris Sununu predicts that the dropout problem now facing community colleges will only increase if students don’t have “skin in the game.” Others are trotting out familiar criticisms about federal control of education. Moreover, one aspect of the Biden plan is dividing Democrats. It would effectively penalize states that already make community college affordable and bail out the ones that have not done so. For example, in-state students at California community colleges pay only $1,460 per year, one-fifth what New Hampshire residents pay.

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Arguably, though, the criticism with the most political traction is that America simply can’t afford the $109 billion price tag in an era in which we are digging out of $2 trillion budget deficits. I think the commissioners had an answer to opponents that still rings true: “Higher education is an investment, not a cost.… It is an investment in social welfare, better living standards, better health and less crime ... [and in] human talent, better human relationships, democracy and peace.”

main topic: Education