The democratic principle of tuition-free education in our country pre-dates the founding of the United States. The first public primary education was offered in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635, and its legislature created Harvard College the following year to make education available to all qualified students. Even before the Constitution was ratified, the Confederation Congress enacted the Land Ordinance of 1785, which required newly established townships in territories ceded by the British to devote a section of land for a public school. It also passed the Northwest Ordinances, which set out the guidelines for how the territories could become states. Among those guidelines was a requirement to establish public universities and a stipulation that “the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” After the nation declared independence, Thomas Jefferson argued for a formal education system funded through government taxation.
Students and families paid more than $154 billion in tuition and fees to attend public, private, and for-profit colleges, universities, and trade and technical schools in the 2011-12 academic year, borrowing more than $106 billion to attend those institutions under the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program. When writing those checks and taking out those loans, few people realize that only 38 percent of students who enter a four-year degree program and 21 percent of students who enter a two-year degree program graduate on time.