A Good Idea, Not a New One

Nicholas Strohl places the idea of free community college education in the context of earlier debates about higher education policy.

February 19, 2015

“The time has come to make education through the 14th grade available in the same way that high school education is now available. This means tuition-free education should be available in public institutions to all youth for the traditional freshman and sophomore years or for the traditional two-year junior college course.”

Although it may sound similar, this statement was not uttered by President Obama. It was, in fact, a declaration made by the United States’ first national commission on higher education, the Truman Commission, in 1947.

Now, more than a half century later, President Obama has given new life to the Truman Commission’s vision with his plan to make “two years of college... as free and universal in America as high school is today.” The proposal, modeled in part on programs in Tennessee and Chicago, promises to use federal and state dollars to eliminate the costs associated with tuition and fees at community colleges for students who enroll at least part-time and maintain a 2.5 grade point average. Though not as far-reaching at the Truman Commission’s plan, the Obama proposal aims to provide a debt-free route to a college education for all Americans willing to work for it.

The Truman Commission’s recommendations did not come to fruition for the same reason that Obama’s plan likely won’t: they faced a Republican Congress with little interest in supporting the president’s agenda or enacting large spending packages.

Still, historians agree that the commission’s bipartisan report -- and the debates it sparked -- changed the conversation about federal and state support for college access. It laid the foundation for the landmark Higher Education Act of 1965. And it prompted many state governments to move ahead with plans to expand public higher education, in particular by creating or enlarging community colleges, in the years after World War II. The same thing is happening today, as the news carries stories of free college plans being developed in Oregon, Mississippi, Minnesota, New Mexico and New York. 

Much like the Obama administration, the 29 educational and civic leaders who served on the Truman Commission believed that Americans’ willingness to extend higher education opportunity to all would be the key to the nation’s economic and political future. They were part of a generation that had lived through two world wars and a devastating economic depression, and they were grappling with the frightening prospect of atomic warfare. Clearly framing higher education as a public good, the commission argued that an educated citizenry provided the best hope for preserving democratic freedom, achieving economic security and even promoting world peace.

Too many young people, the commission argued in 1947, faced barriers to higher education due to family income or geographic location, or on account of race, religion, sex or national origin. Since the 1930s, colleges, both public and private, had steadily increased tuition and fees, putting higher education out of reach for many families. Jewish students encountered admissions quotas at many private colleges, while African-Americans faced separate and unequal higher education in the segregated South. Such discrimination, the commission wrote, amounted to a “waste” of human talent. It was not only a blow to the United States’ image as a bastion of freedom and opportunity -- it was a threat to the national security.

At a time when the federal role in the nation’s education was minimal, the commission asked Washington to take the lead in assisting state and local governments to develop a nationwide network of tuition-free public colleges -- or “community colleges” -- within reach of every American. And although it recommended a range of federal aid programs, including a system of national scholarships and fellowships that could be used at any institution, public or private, the commission believed that access to higher education should be extended primarily through the public system. It was only in publicly controlled institutions, most members agreed, that fair treatment for racial and religious minorities could be assured and tuition and fees could be contained. Moreover, they hoped, the carrot of federal aid could also be used to encourage state governments in the South to end segregation in public colleges and universities.

The intense public debate over the commission’s recommendations demonstrated that the politics of federal aid to higher education were -- and still are -- complex. By the time the commission's report was released, the popularity of the 1944 G.I. Bill of Rights, which provided tuition and cost-of-living assistance to returning veterans, was obvious to everyone, but the commission’s vision of expanding access to higher education to all Americans still proved a hard sell.

As with the debate over the Obama plan, critics found the devil in the details. The proposal was described as too expensive, unrealistic, and even undemocratic. With federal aid, some argued, would come unwelcome federal control. Others charged that the commission’s estimate of Americans’ intelligence was simply too high, or that the nation’s economy had room for only so many college graduates. In 1952, the report of the Commission on Financing Higher Education, a study financed by the Rockefeller and Carnegie Foundations and endorsed by leaders of private institutions, suggested that higher education should be for the nation’s elite students -- the top quarter of academic achievers -- and not for the masses. The Truman Commission, by comparison, asserted that nearly half the adult population could benefit from two years of postsecondary schooling and one-third from an “advanced liberal or specialized professional education” -- just about where we are as a nation today.

But perhaps the most blistering attack came from two of the commission’s own members, both of whom were leaders from Roman Catholic education. They argued that the commission’s exclusion of private colleges from the use of federal funds for current expenditures and capital outlays would lead to a “monopoly of tax funds for publicly controlled colleges and universities” -- a concern expressed in response to the Obama plan.

Many private institutions, they feared, could not compete with a free public sector. Small colleges would close, while a higher education landscape dominated by public institutions would be vulnerable to government control and propaganda, as in the “dictatorships of Germany, Italy and Japan.” Only the existence of private alternatives, free from government oversight, could assure the intellectual freedom that democracy needed to flourish. “American democracy,” they wrote, “will be best served if higher education in the future, as in the past, will continue to be regarded as a responsibility to be shared by public and private colleges and universities.”

Criticism of the Obama plan has followed similar contours. On the left, some worry that the money could be better targeted toward those who need it. On the right, others fear that a commitment to “free” public higher education is too great a fiscal burden to bear, or that a strong public sector will diminish “market” incentives. And, as was the case 60 years ago, commentators of various stripes have pointed out the obvious fact that the production of more college degrees, by itself, will not lead to better employment outcomes or alleviate social inequality.

These criticisms may have some merit, but they miss the larger point of the president’s forward-looking vision of college access. The members of the Truman Commission understood the value of making a powerful statement. During the commission’s second meeting, in December 1946, the philosopher Horace Kallen urged his colleagues to conceive of their report as a statement akin to the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.

“We are starting,” he said, “as a deduction from the democratic position in the field of education, a certain conception of a standard of educational living. We can’t realize it all at once. Every step in the realization is going to be a fight, just as every step in the raising of the standard of living is going to be a fight.”

Indeed, in the spirit of the Truman Commission, the Obama plan renews the nation’s promise to provide educational opportunity to all who are willing to work for it. It serves as a reminder that education is not just a private benefit, open only to those who can afford it, but a public good worthy of investment. The promise of American higher education, after all, is about more than individual job preparation. It is about the possibility for all citizens to participate in envisioning and constructing a better society.


Nicholas Strohl is a Ph.D. candidate in history and educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. His dissertation is entitled “Higher Education and the Public Good: The Truman Commission and the Case for Universal College Access, 1918-1953.”


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