The History of Tuition-Free Education in the U.S.A

In the United States, the development of free and accessible public schools for all children was a huge leap forward for society, but in recent decades many have been pushing to expand this benefit towards higher education as well. It’s easy to understand why. As our economy and society change and evolves, so do the values of our education and degrees. A college degree was once considered a benefit to a job seeker, but not a necessity. Today it is becoming more and more difficult to secure even an entry level job without a college degree.


Young people understand this better than anyone. They know that they will need a college degree if they want to succeed in today’s world. Due to this, they are ready to take on enormous amounts of student loan debt and drain their savings all in the pursuit of this degree.


It’s no wonder that many movers and shakers in education and in the government are questioning the functionality and sustainability of this system. If we want a highly educated society and a highly productive economy, why aren’t we removing the financial barriers that stand between capable young students and their education?


In 2009, educational entrepreneur Shai Reshef founded University of the People in order to do something about this problem. University of the People is an online university where students are not required to pay tuition but are asked to pay minimal registration and exam fees


While online universities had been around for a while, University of the People was the first non-profit online university to offer tuition-free, degrees to students from around the world.


In the years since its founding, University of the People has become both an affordable option for American students and a beacon of hope to students around the world – many in conflict or poverty-stricken areas- who otherwise would have no chance to get a university education. 


Since 2009, it seems that more people understand the necessity of tuition-free education in the United States. The Obama Administration made an early promise to push forward tuition-free community college in the United States. Since then, four states (Rhode Island, New York, Oregon and Tennessee) have acted on this promise.


The Excelsior Scholarship Program provides a full tuition scholarship to students at any state or city university in New York. While this program greatly expands opportunities for students in New York State, it has also been met with criticism for its limitations. It’s only available to students who are New York State residents and the scholarship is contingent on a number of conditions, such as students must live in New York State after graduation for as many years as they received the scholarship and must attend school full time. Not meeting these conditions will cause the scholarship to become an interest-free loan that students must repay. 


In addition to this, as of now, the scholarship is not offered to everyone but only to students whose total household income is $100,000 or less. This annual income cap will gradually increase as the program continues. While the Excelsior Scholarship Program may represent a huge opportunity for many students, it is still a far cry from the kind of freely accessible and tuition-free educational opportunities that our students need. 


Despite these limitations, however, the symbolic power of such a scholarship is very important. The Excelsior Scholarship Program has already made waves and is waking people up to the need for tuition-free education for all.


Michigan has also jumped in line with it’s “Go Blue Guarantee,” a program at the University of Michigan, which will provide free tuition for up to four years for in-state students. This program also has its conditions. Currently, the annual income cap for the program is $65,000.


As things are now, University of the People stands alone as the only tuition-free, accredited university option for students with no strings attached. Hopefully, the idea will spread and more states will join New York and Michigan in an effort to create opportunities for tuition-free education in the United States. As American’s become more aware of the necessity for tuition-free higher education, it’s possible that people will push for country-wide reform. This will then make higher education a right for all individuals who aspire to it, no matter where they reside or how much their families earn.



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