Why are high schools free but colleges aren’t? For over 150 years, our nation has recognized that tuition-free primary and secondary schools were absolutely vital to the growth and functioning of our commonwealth.
By the middle of the 19th century, New York City also provided free higher education through what would become the City College of New York. Hunter and Brooklyn colleges also were tuition-free, as was California’s rapidly growing post-WWII state college and university system. The GI Bill of Rights after WWII provided significant resources to over three million returning veterans to go to school tuition-free, which in no small part, helped to build American prosperity for the next generation. (Tuition was even provided if GIs attended private colleges and universities.) A further impetus to free higher education came as America fell behind the USSR during the Sputnik-era space race.
But the spread of free higher education stalled and then retreated precisely as Wall Street began to grab more and more of the nation’s wealth. As financialization transformed the economy starting in the late 1970s, average wages flattened while Wall Street incomes shot through the roof. At the same time taxes on the super-rich collapsed placing more and more of the burden on working people. Lo and behold, free higher education rapidly became “unaffordable.” Wall Street then swooped in with loans as students and their families loaded up on debt in order to gain access to higher education. This is the very definition of financialization.