Avoiding Student Loan Debt, Cost of Degree, Understanding the Market

How We Used to Fund College

A number of presidential candidates are floating the idea of “tuition-free college.” I’d like to put that into historical context.

My father, who is in his 80s, only had to pay $9.00 a term to attend college at CCNY back in his day. He could easily pay that out of pocket with his part time job. In today’s dollars, that would be equivalent to paying about $90 for a full semester of coursework, or four or five classes. Not $90 per class, but $90 per semester, or about $18-$22 per class.

Do you really think that $9.00/term tuition covered the cost of running the college? Of course not. It was that cheap because the City of New York was funding it.

So when Bernie Sanders says he wants “tuition free” college, he’s just trying to set up the same system his generation had when it went to college. The same system that existed through the 40s, 50s, 60s, and the 70s most places. It’s not about getting free stuff, or not pulling your weight, but about setting up a system that actually works, like the system we had back in the 50s.

Why did the City of New York end tuition free college? Not because it couldn’t afford it. It was a political move. According to The University Against Itself (Temple UP, 2008), New York University, an expensive private institution in New York City, lobbied with city government to end state tuition so that it could be more competitive for students. The issue wasn’t financial, or that the system wasn’t working, or that New York City residents didn’t like it. It was purely political, and the politicians working now to reverse this situation are sensibly trying to work a political fix for a problem that was political to begin with.

If you graduated before college in 2008, you had a lower debt to income ratio than any college student afterwards did. If you graduated college before 1990, it was much, much lower. It’s not just about “individual responsibility” when a predatory system has been set up to trap people doing something they need to live.