When Did State Schools Start Charging Tuition?
Up until the 1960’s, and since Lincoln’s land grants in the 1860’s, state universities used to be tuition-free (college wasn’t “free”, it was “tuition-free” at state schools and otherwise inexpensive). The changes began after WWII, as the GI Bill increased the number of Americans wanting to go to college, and continued into the 1960’s, culminating in Civil Rights and student protests.
These events, the new influx of college eligible Americans, and their related demand for education (which outpaced supply and funding), led to the end of free-tuition state universities, the start of universities as a for-profit business, and the start of the student loan crisis under the Johnson and Nixon administrations.
We tell this complex story below, but first an overview of where we are today by John Oliver.
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Student Debt (HBO). This clip from Last Week Tonight might be the best overview of where we are today, below we tell the story of how it all started.
TIP: Let us be clear, college was never “free” in the united states, but state schools were tuition-free. They charged fees for room and board. As more people were allowed to go to school between WWII and the 60’s, costs began to rise. By the time Nixon’s Student Loan Marketing Association (aka Sallie Mae) was established, the current student loan crisis had begun.
A Quick History of Education Reform, Civil Rights, and the Student Loan Crisis
The end of free-tuition began before with the GI Bill and the economic boom following WWII. These factors dramatically increased the number of families who could afford college in the United States (something most people remember fondly). Businesses also began to requiring college degrees around this time.
Some college fees started to rise from WWII until the 60’s. We lost Kennedy and LBJ took office, but college costs remained relatively low. Student protests, support from figures like Martin Luther King, and a changing culture resulted in LBJ’s sweeping Civil Right’s legislation from 63′ – 68′ including Johnson’s Higher Education Act of 1965. See a full list of Johnson’s Civil Rights legislation to really grasp why “the parties switched” and the student loan crisis began.
Johnson’s arguably well-intentioned legislation created a huge influx of college eligible Americans. Instead of continuing the tradition of tuition-free public colleges by increasing tax funding to meet these demands, states began reducing the per-student funding across the board, and state schools began charging tuition for the first time since the Morrill Land-Grand Act (explained below).
The current student debt crisis was firmly cemented with Nixon’s Student Loan Marketing Association (aka Sallie Mae). Sallie Mae was intended as a way to ensure students funds for tuition costs; instead, it increased the cost of education exponentially for students and taxpayers alike.
From Sallie Mae to today we can trace consistent, continuous drops in per-student state funding for public colleges and rapidly rising tuition costs in all colleges (public and private).
Nixon-Kennedy Debate Education – 50 Years Ago. What better way to understand the changes but to hear a debate from the time between Nixon and Kennedy on Education.
FACT: The Student Loan Marketing Association was created originally in 1972 as a government-sponsored enterprise (GSE) and began privatizing its operations in 1997, a process it completed at the end of 2004 when Congress terminated its federal charter, ending its ties to the government. Learn more about Sallie Mae.
Where do student loans come from?
Were United States Colleges Ever “Free”?
US colleges, starting with the first college Harvard in 1636, have a long history of charging fees. This was even true for the University of Virginia; the first state school meant to be tuition-free from its inception, founded in 1825 by Thomas Jefferson.
In 1862, the government awarded land to states via the Morrill Land-Grand Act. The state universities constructed under this act didn’t charge tuition, but they did charge fees for non-instructional costs like housing, healthcare, infrastructure, and technology.
We can go back and see the history of some of these schools to confirm their tuition free status and rising costs since the 60’s. For example, Pennsylvania State University’s tuition over time here and here (Penn State is PA’s only land-grant school), and we can see the history of UC’s tuition here (UC is another land-grant school).
College wasn’t free in either case, but we can confirm UC was technically tuition-free until the 70’s, and we can confirm Penn State was tuition free back in the 1800’s and didn’t see steep rising costs until the late 1980’s.
FACT: The first land-grant institution created by the Morrill Act was Kansas State University, established on February 16, 1863. See a List of land-grant universities.
Universities Were Tuition Free, But Not Everyone Went to University
Even though some state public schools were “tuition-free” for a hundred years of US history, only the “well off” typically attended college as most people had to work for a living, and didn’t have the money for extra fees. Businesses, and society as a whole didn’t usually require specific job-related degrees in the early in US history either, so many who did attend college often only took the courses they felt they needed to succeed. This made overcrowded schools a non-issue.
The End of Tuition-free State Schools
The end of tuition-free at state schools began to come to an end following WWII because of social changes, specifically in regards to civil rights, legislation, and student loans.
The Land-Grant Act is still around and still important today, this video explains its importance well.
FACT: Tuition-free US state universities started in 1825 before the US even developed access to public elementary, junior high, or high school education. In fact, it was a result of the success of the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862. Access to a public college educations drove the demand for public educational programs to prepare students for possibly attending college.
What Ended Tuition-Free US Universities?
Let’s take a look at each of the factors that impacted the end of tuition-free college in the United States.
The GI Bill and the Post-WWII Economic Boom
The beginning of the end of tuition-free started with the WWII G.I. Bill (which gave vets up to $500 to attend public or private universities) and the economic boom which followed WWII. The increased demand began to overcrowd schools with many who had never been able to go to college before. As attendance rose, costs increased for the universities as well, which needed to expand campuses. The colleges and universities needed to add classrooms, laboratories, dorm buildings, research labs, and staff. Besides, society began to expect, and sometimes legally require, specific college degrees if people wanted to work in many careers. There were small increases in college costs (mostly in the form of fees) from this point through the 1960’s.
GI Bill Of Rights – Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944. Before 1944 college was only for the wealthy elite (because everyone else was at work, not because state schools were expensive).
FACT: The GI Bill was followed by a similar National Defense Student Loan program, later called the Federal Perkins Loan program, which did for civilians what the GI Bill had done for US veterans.
The Higher Education Act of 1965
Despite the increasing demand for college mentioned above, tuition costs only rose slightly during the 50’s and 60’s. They began to spike drastically from the late 60’s moving forward due to several factors related to the changing culture and its laws.
In 1965, under the Johnson administration, the federal government began guaranteeing student loans provided by banks and non-profit lenders. So, instead of states using taxes to fund their public universities before the 1960’s, federal tax dollars were used to guarantee student loans for public or private universities. This eventually created the program we call the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program. In that same year, the Higher Education Act of 1965 pushed for greater college access for women and minorities.
FACT: In 2012 alone, the US spent $11.4 billion in tax dollars just “guaranteeing” student loans for students took on an additional $107 billion in new student loan debt. This was only a fraction of the cost to taxpayers and individuals in 2012 for college. Currently, student loan debt tops $1 trillion. Find out more about the cost of our current programs for college education costs.
Higher Education Act of 1965.
Baby-boomers, Civil Rights, and a Changing Society
The baby-boomers, women, and minorities protested loudly at the Universities in the late 60’s and early 70’s. All the social changes, political/cultural tensions, and the population increases left the door wide open for pushes to reduce tax funding for public colleges. The population was growing, demand for college was also increasing, but at the same time, college students were at the heart of Civil Rights and anti-war protests throughout the nation. Some began to feel these “radical” students had too much free time and that it wasn’t the tax-payers responsibility to help fund their college education.
By the time Nixon enacted Sallie Mae in 1973 tuition had ceased to be free anywhere in the US, and we had just begun to see the inflation of tuition which continues to grow exponentially even today.
FACT: Sallie Mae is a student loan program initially designed to support the guaranteed student loan program created by the Higher Education Act of 1965.
Ronald Reagan, when running for Governor of California, talks about the dangers of Free Speech advocates and the failures of the University of California.
Johnson V. Nixon
It’s tempting to point a finger at Johnson’s short-sighted laws. His administration passed the FFEL and 1965 Higher Education Act. It is also tempting to blame Nixon since his administration started Sallie Mae, and he disliked the student protests personally, but the reality is complex.
From this point forward in history, the story takes many twists and turns. The current student loan crisis is a result of cumulative legislative changes in the 60’s and since which has led to student loan programs we have today, like Sallie Mae. You can learn more about those changes here on our timeline of college tuition in the US.
Elizabeth Warren Asks Why Sallie Mae Is Ripping Off Taxpayers To Screw Over Students.