When Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a new tuition grant program for many public university students, it was a moment with deep New York roots — given the similar proposal championed by Brooklynite Sen. Bernie Sanders and former New York Sen. Hillary Clinton by the end of the Democratic primary. But it went even deeper than that, given New York State’s, and particularly New York City’s, long history with free public college, a commitment that has dimmed in recent decades but is overdue for a resurgence.
That commitment began just after the Civil War, when Townsend Harris, a former porcelain salesman and, later, consul general to Japan created what would become City College. For more than one hundred years, that school charged no tuition and saw public higher education not as money down the drain but a community investment soon recouped.
“City” became the flagship institution of the City University of New York, which “is the backbone of the city,” says Sydney Van Nort, archivist and professor at the college, noting that it trains many of our firefighters, teachers, cops, doctors and lawyers.
City College has graduated the likes of former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Jonas Salk, the scientist who invented the first polio vaccine. It boasts 10 Nobel Prize laureates, all of whom benefited from a free undergraduate education. The school’s ability to serve the city without charging tuition was due for much of its 170-year history to funding from Albany, starting with its founding in 1847.
During a visit to City College’s archives, Van Nort explained that Harris identified an existing State Literature Fund, which he argued was meant to support education for those who couldn’t afford it. Yet the august institutions getting money from the state included Columbia and what would become New York University, neither of which were particularly accessible to those who couldn’t pay exorbitant fees.
Through a series of editorials, Harris sought to build public opinion for the notion that the fund could be used to create a “free academy” in New York City. That’s where his famous admonition comes from: To make higher education “the property of the people — 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.”
The measure passed the state legislature, and less than two years later, students began matriculating.
City College was a mix of students of different economic means. Van Nort says she likes to tell the story of Bashford Dean, the wealthy Manhattanite whose father went to Columbia, where the younger Dean certainly could have matriculated. But he decided to go to City, and ended up holding positions at the Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
For the less well-off, there were plenty of obstacles beyond tuition. There were other charges over the years, for labs and “student activity fees,” plus the general expenses of living. Van Nort says that graduating classes were typically much smaller than incoming ones — of 250 students who matriculated in 1884 only 20 graduated, for example — given that many students had to drop out to support their families. Free tuition doesn’t do anything on that front.
In the wake of the Civil Rights movement, and with the city’s population having swelled, some students began agitating for an open admission system to account for those subpar early educations. City College followed through on that in 1969, just a few years before the fiscal crisis in NYC forced the college to begin charging tuition, in an enormous and much-lamented shift.
At places like City College, many students are now able to cobble together enough state and federal sources of funding to make college fairly affordable. Cuomo’s proposal would entirely fill in the gap for those whose families make under $125,000. The proposal calls for new funding to end after an individual’s four years, supposedly to incentivize four-year graduation rates.
The plan wouldn’t necessarily attack the other side of the equation — either failing K-12 schools or sorely cash strapped higher-ed programs like City College. Some CUNY staff and administrators grumble that Cuomo should identify a real funding source for a program like this, for fear that his great-looking political proposal ends up coming out of their already meager budget.
Those are serious concerns as the legislature takes up this for-now thin proposal. But the spirit of it is in tune with history, says Van Nort: It’s a return to the idea and benefits of free tuition, and an acknowledgement that the fate of public higher education from the start has been tied to decisions in Albany.
A new generation of City College students will wait for help from upstate.
Correction — An earlier version of this post described incorrectly when Townsend Harris served as consul general to Japan; it was after Harris proposed creating City College, not before.