Free Higher Education

Against the Current, No. 115, March/April 2005

interview with Adolph Reed, Jr.

Dr. Adolph Reed, political scientist, author and activist, is the national spokesperson for the Free Higher Education Campaign, which calls for free tuition and fees for all students who meet admissions requirements at all two and four-year public colleges. Between November 16 and 18, 2004 Dr. Reed visited Minnesota and presented three public talks about the campaign, one at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul and two to groups at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

His visit was organized and endorsed by an ad hoc coalition of unions and faculty groups, including AFSCME locals 3800 and 3260 of the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Conference of the American Association of University Professors, the Metropolitan State University Inter Faculty Organization, the Minnesota State College Faculty, and GradTRAC (the University of Minnesota graduate student organizing drive affiliated with the UE). The St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly also endorsed the campaign and speaking tour.

While in Minnesota Dr. Reed was interviewed by Michael G. Livingston for Against the Current. More information on the campaign, including a sample resolution for unions and academic organizations, can be found at the national web site

ATC: What is the Free Higher Education Campaign?

Dr. Reed: The campaign rests on a pretty simple idea — that access to higher education should be available to all who desire it and meet admission requirements as a basic social right, i.e. that it should be available without regard to ability to pay.

Because the public sector in general and the federal government in particular are the guarantors of such rights, and because the federal government is best situated to meet the costs, we call for the federal government to pay tuition and fees for all students — full-time, part-time, degree-pursuing or not — enrolling in two-year or four-year public colleges and universities.

ATC: How would the program work?

Dr. Reed: The program would be straight forward and simple to administer, quite unlike the Rube Goldberg concoctions that John Kerry and all the other Democratic presidential aspirants (with the exception of Kucinich, who basically took ours) proposed.

When a student registers to attend classes, the institution would simply bill the federal administrative agency for the amount of the student’s tuition and fees, which would be remitted directly to the institution. There would be no means-testing bureaucracy, no elaborate paperwork requirements for students.

There is a model for this program in living American history — the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, the World War II GI Bill of Rights — which among other provisions paid all tuition and fees, as well as a living wage stipend, to returning veterans. Millions took advantage of the educational benefit and made this one of the most successful public policies in the country’s history.

ATC: How much would the program cost and how would we pay for it?

Dr. Reed: This is in a way the most astounding thing about the program; it’s not at all expensive.

The total cost of tuition and fees for all students enrolled in two-year and four-year public colleges is now around $33 billion. This is about one percent or less of the federal budget. Even if greater access would double the number of people pursuing higher education, it would still be easily affordable without income tax increases on individuals.

For instance, closing just those corporate tax loopholes that were opened between 1990 and 2000 would restore $60 billion to the federal budget in an instant. There’s no need to develop complex revenue and funding proposals to fund this program. All it requires is political will.

I should note here as well that, while laudable for their effort, programs attempting to address the problem of affordability at the state level — Georgia and the University of North Carolina have adopted tuition relief programs, and Michigan and other states have been discussing similar responses — cannot resolve this problem.

States simply don’t have the resources required to address the magnitude of the problem, and they are subject to fiscal stress that can put those programs in jeopardy when they might be most needed. Already Georgia’s program, which offers free tuition to any student maintaining a B average, has been threatened by general fund budget shortfalls.

ATC: Why is this campaign important?

Dr. Reed: We think this program is important because it’s right. It’s a simple continuation of the 19th century struggle for universal access to publicly funded elementary education and the early 20th century struggle for universal access to public secondary education.

In a just society everyone should have access to the tools that can help explore and develop their capacities. Moreover, employers increasingly use higher education as a filtering credential to limit access to decent employment; therefore, it is necessary for the society to guarantee everyone unimpeded access to the requirements for effective civic life.

Most practically, it’s important because the crisis of affordability in higher education is intensifying steadily. Before long, access to college education will be closed off to working class students and their families.

In addition, this campaign raises broader concerns about justice, government’s obligations to provide for the general welfare and the importance of the public sector. Because this proposal would be so easy to implement, it opens immediately to broader discussions of what government’s priorities, and relation to people’s basic needs, should be.

Occasionally someone asks what winning Free Higher Education would mean for African Americans in particular. The answer is that it would mean for them, first of all, the same thing it would mean for everyone else —  removal of financial constraint from the decision to pursue higher education. Given that Black people still receive less income on the average than whites and have less in the way of personal wealth and assets, this is in itself an important improvement.

While it is true that conditions in inner-city schools hamper many students’ abilities to attend and perform well in college, many do try and want to attend college. And, although this proposal doesn’t directly address the gross inequalities about our priorities, that can only assist the struggle for access to quality K-12 education.

ATC: You are one of the leaders of the Labor Party. What is the relationship between the Labor Party and the Free Higher Education Campaign?

Dr. Reed: The Labor Party initiated the campaign. We kicked it off officially at our 2002 national convention. We felt that, just as the struggle for the universal right to elementary education in the 19th century was led largely by the labor movement, it would make sense for a program like this to originate from an organization rooted in the trade union movement.

The campaign, though, is not the Labor Party’s exclusive property. It has been adopted by large unions representing faculty at the City University of New York system, the California State University system, University of Massachusetts, the Collective Bargaining Congress of the American Association of University Professors and a number of its affiliated bodies individually, the New Jersey Industrial Union Council, the Oregon and South Carolina state AFL- CIO federations, and dozens of other unions, academic organizations, civil rights and social justice organizations and community groups.

Our approach to building the campaign rests crucially on local initiative and relatively loose national coordination. We don’t think that we’re in a position to dictate campaign strategies to people in Minnesota or California, and that it would be counterproductive to try to if we could.

This campaign is going to be built and take off because people with organizational abilities and links to institutional resources will get excited about it and take it into their unions and other networks; work with others to link it to local, ongoing struggles; and develop plans, based on local conditions and assessment of their own capacities and limitations, for broadening and deepening a base of support where they are.

So far experience has borne out this approach. The way things are coming together in Minnesota is exactly how we believe this campaign should and will be built.

In South Carolina, the campaign has the support of the state AFL-CIO and the two biggest central labor councils as well as an impressive statewide network of labor, civil rights, feminist, gay rights and environmental organizations.

Core activists — one of whom is a professor at a state university — have built broad enough support to plan a statewide conference this spring, from all the public higher education campuses in South Carolina, on the State of Public Higher Education in South Carolina.

In New Jersey, the Rutgers AAUP, an early campaign endorser and a central Collective Bargaining chapter in the national AAUP, are sponsoring public events around the campaign in February. Comparable activities are developing elsewhere.

It’s useful to think of where we are now with this campaign as in the earlier phases of an organizing drive. We’ve been concentrating on establishing connections and building relationships around the country, as much as we can given our limited human and other resources, with people and organizations likely to get excited about this idea.

They’re likely to be in a position to advance it where they are, first in their own institutions and organizations, then more broadly in their locales. The campaign will kick into another gear when we get it on the radar screen in K-12 teachers unions, PTA organizations, little leagues, church groups and unions that have no direct links to higher education.

People who know me hardly think of me as a Pollyanna. But I’m convinced that this is an issue that we can win, and can win in not very many years, if we build it carefully and hold to its core principles of universality and federal funding.

Specifically, an important pitfall to avoid is rushing to enlist support of sympathetic legislators. We’ve all seen this happen so many times: a good idea and clear demand gets translated into compromised, watered- down legislation that both doesn’t do enough and will never go anywhere anyway, because it comes without a militant base of popular support.

ATC: How can people build the campaign?

Dr. Reed: There are a number of things people can do, both as individuals and through their institutions. Our campaign web site has information on the campaign and its rationales, model resolutions of support and links for individuals to sign onto it.

Signing on will get you into our database for regular email updates on the campaign and related issues. Organizational endorsements are very important to us, and we urge people to take the issue and the campaign to whatever organizations they’re active in and to stimulate discussion of the idea.

When organizations — of whatever kind — endorse, it’s important to notify the national campaign, either by email or regular mail (addresses are available on the web site) so that we can enter them into our master list of endorsers.

The campaign becomes most exciting when, as we’ve seen happen in several places now, including California, activists see ways to connect it organically with other, more local struggles. What we hear from people is that the campaign provides a nice umbrella under which to bring together various interests concerned with cutbacks and crisis in higher education, and that it excites and energizes people engaged in those struggles by giving them something to fight FOR, where we’ve spent most of the last 30 years fighting against retrenchment and attack in nearly every domain of all our movements.

ATC 115, March-April 2005