On May 1st, as activists across the globe rallied in honor of International Workers' Day, a group of students from universities around New York City gathered in the tiny park in front of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art's Foundation Building, where Cooper Union President Jamshed Bharucha's office is located. While the students spoke about struggles for justice on their campuses, above them, draped from a window, hung a banner that read, "Free Education To All."
For Cooper Union students, free education is not a pipe dream but a reality – at least, it was. The school has been free since it was founded in 1859, but this year, facing dire financial circumstances, President Bharucha has sought to change that defining trait. On April 21st, the Board of Trustees voted to begin charging undergraduate tuition in Fall 2014. On May 8th, students gathered once again at the Foundation Building, this time with a different purpose: To occupy Bharucha's office until he stepped down as president. While security tried to evict the students, they refused to leave. The occupation ultimately lasted 65 days, ending on July 12th after student organizers and board members reached an agreement.
The struggle at Cooper Union is far from over – part of the agreement involves forming a working group consisting of students, faculty, alumni, administrators and trustees to search for an alternative to instituting tuition. Notably, the agreement also states that a student representative will be elected to the Board of Trustees and that the working group will have access to the university's financial information.
But the fight against student debt and rising tuition – or any tuition – is not limited to Cooper Union, or to private universities. In Oregon, the state legislature passed a bill on July 1st to investigate how to implement a "Pay It Forward, Pay It Back" (PIF) tuition plan, which would allow students at Oregon's public universities to attend college without paying first, as long as they agreed to pay up to three percent of their income for 20 years after graduating. The idea came out of a class at Portland State University called "Student Debt: Economics, Policy and Advocacy." The Oregon Working Families Party and Jubilee Oregon partnered with the class and helped with lobbying.
Much excitement followed the Oregon plan's announcement, which came as the U.S. Senate permitted interest rates on student loans to double. But while some praised the plan for creating tuition-free universities, it does not address the fundamental problem of the price of higher education – and critics have argued it only delays or hides costs. The Oregon plan's target, however, is not tuition but student debt, and its organizers acknowledge that it is only one step in what needs to be a much broader rethinking of higher education funding. "We are having to balance the issues and find a solution on the immediate level for student debt while we work to try to get more funding coming into higher education," explains Barbara Dudley, a professor at Portland State University who co-taught the course that developed the idea. She warns that PIF could mask rising tuition costs, which they will need to watch for, but believes that it is the right move for the current moment in Oregon.
Since 1978, tuition has increased 1,120 percent nationally, and is rising faster than the rate of inflation. State and local funding for higher education declined seven percent in 2012, and in 2011, students graduated with an average of $26,500 in student loans. To stop these numbers from rising even higher, it will take both direct action from student activists and legislative action – "mutually reinforcing" techniques, according to Angus Johnston, a historian of student activism. "The slow, quiet erosion of the country's commitment to public higher education has been happening largely outside of the public's view," says Johnston, who teaches at the City University of New York, which was tuition-free until 1976. "Now, as a result of the increase in activism and lobbying work that's been happening, the public is starting to pay attention. We're starting to have a real national debate over what kind of educational system we want to have in this country. And the more prominent that debate becomes, the more people start tuning in to that debate, the better it is for students."
As students at public and private universities across the country know all too well, that debate is urgent. While governments decrease funding and schools shift costs onto students, the idea that higher education could be free – an idea that Cooper Union students are holding close – is drifting perilously far from reach.