From "Open Doors" To "Engines Of Inequality"

Over a hundred and fifty years ago, after years of controversy and struggle, New Yorkers voted by a 6 to 1 margin to establish the Free Academy for the Poor Man's Children. That trailblazer college removed the barrier of tuition for its first class of 149 college students and over the years has burgeoned into the City University of New York with 403,000 students and 20 colleges.

Achieving a free college was not easy. As early as 1805, concerned citizens had formed the Free Public Society to advocate free, nonsectarian schools in Manhattan. Organized labor joined the struggle to establish free universal education. Opponents of a free college claimed that "truly deserving" students could get scholarships to the two private colleges in the city. Townsend Harris, an outspoken advocate for public education, rejected "charity scholarships." As the elected president of the Board of Education, he wrote, "Open the doors to all--let the children of the rich and the poor take their seats together, and know of no distinction save that of industry, good conduct and intellect."

How had the tuition-free City University been transformed (along with other free public universities) into a tuition-paying system that the nonpartisan Education Trust recently described as the "Engines of Inequality"? The Trust also described the best public universities as having come to resemble "gated communities of higher education."

The first president of the Free Academy, Horace Webster, championed educating "the children of the whole people." Today's presidents preside over decreasing numbers of poor and immigrant students. Those now attending these public colleges face mounting tuition and decreasing governmental grants, vie for scholarships, go into debt, depend on family assistance or interrupt or don't complete their education.

The descendants of the early opponents of free education for qualified students have found clever ways of whittling away these early achievements. In 1950, when I was a junior, City College imposed a $3 dollar Student Activity Fee. Though it was for student activities and rather small, many students saw the camel sticking its nose into the tent. But the politicians wanting to end 125 years of tuition-free colleges for city residents wisely avoided a single coup de grвce that could have destroyed their political careers. They deserve credit for the deceptive and rationalizing ways they dismantled a free university.

In 1961, Albany passed a bill eliminating the "mandate" for free tuition, but they didn’t impose tuition. The second blow came eleven years later, in 1972, when a tuition structure was established. Again, the politicians still did not actually institute tuition. That came in 1976, during the city's budget crisis when state officials, in return for helping to fund the senior colleges, arm-twisted the City Board of Education into imposing tuition. Of course the politicians promised that federal, state and other financial aid would not deprive poor students of an education. But over the years that promise has been cynically whittled away by increasing tuition, diminishing sources for and amounts of student aid funds and relying on private donors. The disastrous effects that discourage low income and minority students from attending and graduating college is documented in many studies, the most recent the Education Trust report, which as I mentioned, calls public colleges the "Engines of Inequality." State and City politicians rescinded what had been mandated by a citizen vote. I still wonder at the legitimacy--morally if not legally--at not having had New York City residents again vote on whether they wanted to maintain a tuition-free system.

Mention should be made of the Open Enrollment Program, whose expense had been used as one reason to charge tuition. Initiated in 1970, the program allowed the entrance into the four year colleges of all city high school students who had an average of at least 80% or were in the top 50% if their class. The community colleges would accept all the others. The program had broad support (e.g., the United Federation of Teachers, the Central Labor Council, the Public Education Association, the CUNY senate.) It benefited not only minority students; many white working class youngsters who didn't consider attending college enrolled. At the time I was on the faculty of Lehman College wshere I helped train the counselors who worked with these conscientious and hardworking students. While the program was expensive and had shortcomings, it enriched the lives of many.

Another reason for charging tuition was the fiscal problems that New York City was experiencing at the time. While I believe that the politicians should not have sacrificed a free university in the first place, it certainly should have been reinstated once the financial crisis was over.

To digress on a personal note, my brother and I, children of immigrants, were able to attend a free City College. Like so many others coming from working class families, I worked after school and summers to earn money for books, transportation and personal expenses. I remember the corridor in the basement of the Main Building where students sold the previous semester's textbooks to purchase the new ones. Yet I was better off than others who had to work full time and attended part time or evening school.

As an alumnus of both the Bronx High School of Science and City College, I attended a luncheon to raise college tuition money for selected Science students. I had the opportunity to ask the college's President, Gregory Williams, an outstanding educator, that while I joined with others in contributing to this fund, I was concerned about the many other students who also needed financial assistance. They were not necessarily "stars" but were capable and worthy of attending City College. Afterwards, he wrote that he realized tuition places "challenges and hardships on our students" and that he appreciated my "desire that City College once again offer free tuition." But "such a plan," he added, "is not practical in the current political and economic climate."

While I agree with President Williams about the current political climate, I am hopeful that it is changing. We are the richest country on the planet, yet the government pays only a third of public college costs while other industrialized countries pay so much more. Only recently did I discover that there are those carrying on the struggle started two centuries ago. These include the Professional Staff Congress of CUNY, the Collective Bargaining Congress of the American Association of University Professors, as well as other university groups and unions. Several labor leaders have set up a web site where one can obtain more information (Debs-Jones-Douglass Institute at While opponents of a free university cite its expense, those benefiting from a free university education have, because of their increased earning power, repaid many times over in taxes the cost of their education, with enough to help other students as well. I know that is true for me, having paid taxes for over fifty years. I am not completely certain that I would have become a psychologist if there was not a free City College of New York, which at that time also enabled me to take my first graduate psychology courses.

Hopefully, civic-minded citizens will again raise the early 19th century banner for free universal education to qualified New York City students. And there assuredly will be the leaders like Townsend Harris, who will again arouse our citizens to restore what was established by a public referendum.

From "Open Doors" To "Engines Of Inequality" 7.9 of 10 on the basis of 1670 Review.