The Man Who Will Make Elizabeth Warren President

I haven’t heard her say it and I can’t figure out why not. Senator Warren’s campaign promise of free college for all has a long and successful history in these United States and you’d think she’d be crowing about that. As historians are well aware, “free college” is far older than the Charleston and filtered cigarettes.

Here’s the scoop: You’ve heard Senator Warren’s plan for free college tuition and diminished student-loan debt. You may have heard that this kind of plan is nothing new. As William J. Reese pointed out in The Origins of the American High School (Yale UP, 1995), in the 1800s Americans faced a dilemma that feels familiar to us today. Reformers weren’t sure what to do about high schools, the “people’s” college. Back then, very few young people attended high schools, but those who did could use their diplomas to give their careers a boost.

At the time, high schools were generally paid for with a mix of public and private funding. Students often paid tuition but the schools usually also received some money from local and state governments.

Baltimore High School Reese

People were willing to pay for it back then.

Sound familiar?

Reformers back then successfully lobbied for greater public funding and greater government oversight and control. Senator Warren would be wise to depict her plan as an heir to this storied American tradition. She could deflect a lot of criticism using tried-and-true political strategy.

For example, according to Business Insider, some folks oppose Warren’s plan as elitist and expensive. As BI reports,

Critics of Warren’s plans argue that free college and debt forgiveness would force taxpayers, most of whom don’t have college degrees, to fund the education of students from wealthy families.

We’ve been down this road before. As Prof. Reese noted, these same criticisms came up in the 1800s. The problems back then were all negotiable. For example, in 1866, the high school in New Haven, Connecticut dropped its Greek curriculum because lower-income voters saw it as an unnecessary frill, a sop to Yale-bound richies.

Overall, though, free (people’s) college became an accepted part of America’s public-school system. There’s no reason why Senator Warren can’t learn from the long history. She should give Prof. Reese a call.

Leave a comment


  1. Richard Sherry

     /  April 29, 2019

    Have you read the proposal carefully, though? She wants states to take over half the tuition payment, while the federal government will tax the wealthy enough to pay for the other half. And part of the proposal is that states cannot reduce their current commitments. This means that state support will go up, and state taxes to residents must increase. It’s not free, the cots are just distributed more broadly. Secondly, though, as Fox News (whom I generally trust as adders fanged) reports, there’s no constitutional provision for congress to support a tax on wealth, rather than earnings.

    • Thanks, no, I admit I haven’t read the plan carefully. I’m thinking more about the big-picture political pitch to the American people. On both the Left and Right, I think, Senator Warren will have a better chance if she sells her plan as a continuation of a great American tradition.

  2. Rob H

     /  April 29, 2019

    I personally struggle with this plan. My daughter has worked her tail off during her senior year of HS, during college and over the summers so she will graduate without college debt. I am not sure that college is a fundamental right for people. Students need to be invested. I don’t think we need to give handouts to people when they are wasting the “savings” on unnecessary things (e.g. cars, electronics, eating out, etc). I think students should be required to invest in their education, financially. Otherwise, they may not value and appreciate it as much. However, I also recognize that we need to make it available to all and affordable for them.

    Who ever said that you have to go to college between 18-22? Why not take a year or two to earn money and limit the debt we allow students to take? My daughter (with about $10k from us) will have paid about $35k for college, but she doesn’t get debt forgiveness because she worked for it. (The rest was scholarships and grants that she earned.) Why do we punish students for working hard and saving by reducing grant eligibility?

    Lower income kids do deserve an education if they are willing to work for it, both academically and financially. And they should not be weighed down by debt when it is over. However, why do we allow the government or banks put students into these positions? What are the school business offices doing? “Sure, take the loan so we get paid and you will figure it out later.” What if we worked for it before and rewarded that?

    I am sorry this is a bit of a rambling and maybe not very coherent.

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