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As presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton announces her plan to make public college “tuition free” for households with incomes up to $125,000 a year, I think it’s worth remembering that we’ve already lived through an era where college tuition was not quite free, but when cost was neither a barrier to access, nor necessitated the acquisition of considerable debt.

When we consider the numbers, the degree to which college has become unaffordable is shocking.[1]

The University of California system was “tuition free” for California residents into the 1980’s, though “tuition free” didn’t quite mean zero cost. In 1956, the incidental “fee” was $56. This increased to $300 annually in 1968 and $630 in 1975.

Indexed to inflation, $300 in 1968 is around $2100 in 2016 dollars. In-state, undergraduate tuition at U. California-Berkeley is over $16,000/year, 8x what it would be if it had only increased with inflation.

At a minimum wage in 1968 of $1.60/hr, paying that $300 fee would take 187.5 hours (4 ½ weeks full-time) of work. In 2016, at California’s minimum wage of $10/hr (a generous increase over the federal minimum of $7.25/hr), paying the tuition and fees for Cal-Berkeley would take 1600 hours of work, 40 weeks of full-time employment.

For in-state students at my home state’s flagship university and my alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in 1968, tuition and fees were $170/year. In 1975, $496/year. In 1980, $634/yr.

That 1980 figure, indexed to inflation, is worth around $1800 in 2016 dollars. In-state tuition at UIUC is presently $15,626.

A year of college tuition and fees is the equivalent of 1894 hours minimum wage employment ($8.25/hr in Illinois). That’s over 47 weeks of full-time work to pay a single year’s tuition. In 1980, a minimum wage job ($3.10/hr) would’ve covered a year’s tuition in 204 hours, or a little over a month of full-time employment.

In 1960, 78% of the University of Michigan’s budget came from state appropriations. By 2012 it was 17%. Many state institutions receive less than 10% of their operating budgets from state appropriations.

Investigate any public institution you want and you will find the same pattern. No, college was never quite no cost, but for 30 or so years (roughly the 1950's into the 1980’s), that cost was not an unreasonable barrier to higher education in the public sphere.

My matriculation year at the University of Illinois (1988) had a nearly 50% increase in tuition over the previous year, yet it was still only $2070 per year, or $4264.54 in today’s dollars.

I’ll say it again, in-state tuition at the UIUC is now over $15k per year.

It is a good thing that Secretary Clinton has opened up the general election discussion about college costs following the Democratic primary debate between her and Bernie Sanders. This is a debate worth having.

What’s striking to me, though, is that for those thirty-plus years there was no debate. We agreed that access to higher education was a shared public good and that the cost of that education should not be an unreasonable barrier.

What’s happened since then? Lots of things.

More people are pursuing postsecondary education, including people from groups that did not previously have access to advanced education.

The operation of institutions of higher education has gotten much more expensive as we’ve added technology, services, and (primarily administrative) personnel.

An elaborate system of grants, loans, and scholarships at both the federal and state levels that has significantly complicated where the money to pay for tuition comes from.

Wages have not kept pace with costs.

Spending on prisons and corrections has skyrocketed. From 1989 to 2013, while state and local postsecondary spending has been flat, state and local spending on prisons has increased by 89%.

Mostly, though, societal attitudes have changed. Education is now a private good and public institutions are meant to compete with each other. We now know that the costs of that competition fall to the individual tuition-paying students. This is the state we’re in.

Some argue that this is okay, that it’s good for students to have “skin in the game,” except we didn’t used to worry about students having “skin in the game” because we knew that one’s own future potential was plenty of individual skin and that our collective skin was benefited by investing in those individual futures. Now, we are wrapped up in a discussion about who “deserves” access to postsecondary education, worried that opening the doors for others means closing some for ourselves.

Lots of people are questioning how Secretary Clinton’s plan would work, and count me with IHE’s Dean Dad, Matt Reed, in believing that a simpler plan would be superior. I cringe at every dollar lost to actual education as we establish a system for the means testing Clinton proposes. I’d much rather let the wealthy also have easy access to public institutions if it means more $’s going to those institutions.

Many people are also wondering how we’re going to pay for the plan.

I don’t hold institutions blameless when it comes to increasing costs, but there’s money to be had. We are literally a richer country than ever. Real GDP indexed to inflation is higher today than any other point in our history. Our current GDP (again, indexed to inflation) of around $16.5 trillion is over 3.5x higher than the GDP in 1968 ($4.62 trillion).

We simply put our wealth in different places than when postsecondary education was affordable and accessible.

Yes, it’s complicated, the array of grants, loans, scholarships and other routes to funding individuals as they pursue education can make it difficult to even determine how much “public” money is being put into the system. But any way you look at it, we used to subsidize postsecondary education to a significantly greater degree than we do now.

But rather than debating the logistics or political fortunes of Secretary Clinton’s plan, how about a discussion of our shared values?[2]

What is “reasonable access” to postsecondary education? Does it look like 1968 or 1980, when a little over a month of minimum wage work could pay for a year of school? Or is it today, when it can take up to a year of minimum wage work to pay a year’s in-state tuition?

I meet many Republican voters who worry about the cost of college. They may have different beliefs on what policies may remedy this problem, but at the core, they value the same things I do. I want any child born in America to have access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

For me, access to education, including postsecondary education (be that college or otherwise), is part of that promise. Do others feel the same way?

Let’s have that discussion.

What’s important to you?

What’s important for us?




[1] And this is only considering the cost of tuition, not room and board or books or other living expenses, all of which have increased at rates far greater than inflation.

[2] As a dispositional conservative, I’d be much happier if this could happen at the state level, rather than the federal level, but our steady state divestment with the feds picking up (some of) the slack has made this seem almost impossible.

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