Campaign to stop fees grows in US

August 27, 2004

Free education activists are attempting to have tuition fees abolished at public universities in the US.

Public universities and colleges account for 83 per cent of US university enrolment. The Free Higher Education movement seeks to waive tuition fees and eliminate financial barriers to access for all students, including those from the middle classes, who face huge debts because of loans they take out to underwrite their schooling.

The movement is supported by a confederation of labour unions, community and advocacy groups, and academic organisations - including an arm of the American Association of University Professors.

It seeks what it calls "a clear, simple and direct way to have a significant impact on this crisis of access". It begins from the assumption that higher education should be available as a right - for all applicants who meet admissions standards".

It would cost the national government about $30 billion (£16.5 billion) a year to pay the tuition fees of all public university students in America - no more than "a rounding error" in the federal budget, according to Adolph Reed, a professor of political science at New School University in New York and co-chair of the campaign.

Even if free tuition caused enrolment to double, the cost would be the same as the national spend on financial aid for all of higher education, Professor Reed said.

"It's cheap," Professor Reed said. "Pundits, economists and the like have been saying for at least a decade that to have a shot at decent employment in the new economy, you need a college education. Thirty-five years ago, that's what people were saying about a high-school diploma. But free primary education isn't in the constitution. It was the result of a process of agitation over the 19th century. We see this as just a logical extension."

The idea is based on the post-Second WorldWar GI Bill, which provided free tuition plus a stipend to returning military veterans. Some public universities, including those in California and the City University of New York, remained tuition-free until the 1970s. But since then, costs have rocketed, a trend accelerated yet again by public-sector budget shortfalls in the past few years.

All contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination made improving access to higher education a major part of their campaigns, though none proposed free tuition.

But there is a little chance the nation will waive tuition fees for all public university students any time soon.

"The objective at this point is to find ways to broaden a public conversation around the issue, to build a strong national movement in support of it," Professor Reed said. "This may not happen in the next election cycle, but it can be won."

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