From the middle of the 19th century until 1970, tuition at the City University of New York (CUNY) was free to those who "merited" it. After 1970, students and communities organized, and free tuition access was expanded to anyoneone with a high school diploma.
"The results were dramatic. Almost overnight, CUNY transformed from a nearly 80% white institution to one of the most diverse student bodies in the country. By 1975, 70% of new enrollees were people of color. A large number of working-class Italian, Jewish and Irish students likewise benefitted."
These benefits were short-lived, as the backlash was swift.
Framed as that perennial struggle between capitalism and socialism, politicians, bankers, and their overlapping interests railed against public subsidies for campus radicals who were only causing problems rather than learning to be better workers. As a result of their lobbying and ideological efforts within university systems, as Mathew Korfhage explains in the Lo Hud article,
"once-perilous student loans became a profitable industry. And with student financing available from eager bankers, state and federal governments could raise tuition to cover costs while lowering the government's overall share of funding."
Yup, that's right, scale and profit rather than learning and growth. Not to mention the suit-clad politicians hate free-thinking students.
As goes New York State and California, so goes the nation. Massachusetts was the first state to be the guarantor for student loans, then New York and California.
A quick read, the Lo Hud article outlines how ideological positions are translated into political leverage and policy changes and why the corporations and politicians that benefit from the existing educational grifting system for students will not give up that easily. In other words, grants and loans are the same money, coming from the same pool of resources. Only capitalists can get non-mean-tested low interests loans for publicly traded companies and then have them forgiven. The rest of us are told, "F*** you, pay me." Or not, and the interest will accrue.
As Stephen Brier wrote in Austerity Blues: Fighting for the Soul of Public Higher Education, quoted in the Korfhage article,
"There was 130 years of free tuition in municipal colleges in New York. It ended literally half a dozen years after the system finally integrated." Brier said. "It was a very segregated system up to 1970…. The student population had expanded to include significant numbers of students of color, Black and Puerto Rican in those days. And literally six years later, free tuition ended. That's not just a coincidence."
All that said, if free tuition existed in the past, it could always exist again. Yet, urban planners, community activists, and scholars are also concerned about how "universities are plundering our cities."