When Public Universities Were Free or Affordable

What we still call “public universities” would be more accurately described as state-controlled private universities — corporate entities that think and behave like businesses. Where there once was a public mission to educate the republic’s citizens, there is now the goal of satisfying the educational needs of the market, aided by PR departments that brand degrees as commodities and build consumer interest, always with an eye to the bottom line. And while public universities once sought to advance the industry of the state, as a whole, with an eye to the common good, shortfalls in public funding have led to universities treating their research capacity as a source of primary fund-raising, developing new technologies and products for the private sector, explicitly to raise the money they need to operate. Conflicts of interest are now commonplace.

Should public universities be free? Only because our public universities have been so fundamentally privatized over the last forty years does the sentence “Public universities should be free” even make sense. Of course they should be free! If an education was available only to those who could afford it — if an education is a commodity to be purchased in the marketplace — in what sense could it really be called “public”?

Aaron Bady, a postdoctoral fellow at UT-Austin and a cultural critic, has an editorial in Aljazeera America arguing why public universities should be free. Bady goes into the history of the California Master Plan for Higher Education, which was developed by the UC Regents and State Board of Education in the 1960s and noted that: “The two governing boards reaffirm[ed] the long established principle that state colleges and the University of California shall be tuition free to all residents of the state.” Then, there was a clear cost distinction between public colleges and private colleges, which has become muddied today.

Photo: Boston Public Library



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