Home » Volume III, Issue 1 / Fall 2014 » Free Tuition and Expansion in New York Public Higher Education

Free Tuition and Expansion in New York Public Higher Education

Tahir Butt
Graduate Center, The City University of New York


November of 1965 was a tumultuous month in the history of City University of New York. On the 21st of the month, a prominent headline on the front page of the New York Times read “HEAD OF CITY UNIVERSITY, DEAN AND 2 COLLEGE CHIEFS QUIT IN FEUD WITH BOARD… Dispute Touched Off by Proposal for Tuition Plan.” Their resignations had come after two weeks of a controversy that erupted following the announcement of a plan to impose a $400 tuition for students enrolled at the City University of New York (CUNY), which had traditionally been tuition-free. The city’s Board of Higher Education, the local agency empowered by the State of New York to administer and set tuition policy at the municipal colleges, censured the CUNY Chancellor and his administrative colleagues who had proposed the tuition fee, precipitating their resignations. While the Board found it an act of betrayal, the university administrative leadership’s aim had been to increase state aid to a municipal university woefully unprepared to handle the increasing numbers of high school graduates demanding entrance into its tuition-free colleges.

The number of high school graduates had begun to spike by the mid-1960s, a product of the postwar Baby Boom as well as the massive migration of Southern blacks and Puerto Ricans to New York. In the fall of 1963, a Board of Higher Education staff paper warned that several thousand applicants would be denied CUNY admission due to a lack of adequate facilities. The Board’s response in the fall of 1964 was an emergency plan, “Operation Shoehorn,” that squeezed an additional 3,000 students into already overcrowded CUNY buildings. For the newly appointed Chancellor, Albert Bowker, stopgap solutions like this would not be enough to meet the growing demographic pressures on CUNY. His plan, supported by the university’s five college presidents, was formally announced on the night of November 10, so as to avoid fueling political controversy during that year’s mayoral elections. The controversial proposal called upon the Board to establish tuition in order to help fund a new $400 million capital expansion program. A construction fund would be set up through the sale of 40-year bonds, mirroring similar financing strategies by the New York State government to expand the State’s university system. Bowker insisted this $400 tuition was “theoretical” (also referred to as a “shadow” or “dummy”): no student would actually have to pay this tuition once a combination of federal and state student aid, previously inaccessible to tuition-free students at CUNY, offset the new tuition charges. But the Board of Higher Education was not at all pleased by not having been consulted before Bowker’s plan was announced. On November 18, a front-page article in the New York Times reported that the Board had censured the Chancellor and college presidents for proposing a change to tuition policy.

The roots of the new tuition plan lay in disparities between the state funding allocated to the City University of New York and that which was allocated to the state system, the State University of New York (SUNY). Though the senior and community colleges in CUNY had enrollments comparable to all the campuses in the SUNY system combined, SUNY’s operating budget of $205 million at the time of the “dummy tuition” proposal was nearly double that of CUNY’s. State legislation had stipulated that public colleges were to receive state appropriations in parity with local appropriations and student tuition fees. Being that CUNY maintained free tuition, though primarily among its senior colleges, they had been shut out of the state largesse. Essentially, Bowker’s plan traded in the principle of free tuition for access to increased state funding.

Governor Nelson D. Rockefeller, for his part, had added to the brewing controversy when on November 15, 1965, he announced plans to build five new four-year SUNY campuses in New York City. Since tuition had been instituted at SUNY campuses in 1961, Rockefeller had been pressuring the city’s Board of Higher Education to do the same at CUNY. Before the state government could use the local controversy over the Bowker’s plan as reason to extend its consolidation of public higher education into the municipal system, outgoing Mayor Robert Wagner, Jr. stepped in to resolve the crisis for the time being by committing increased city funds to the establishment of a CUNY construction fund to support expansion. Ultimately the conflict that erupted in the fall of 1965 did not result in the Board of Higher Education agreeing to the imposition of tuition in exchange for increased state aid that Bowker had proposed. The following spring a legislative bill, spearheaded by Manhattan Democrat and chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on Higher Education, Manfred Ohrenstein, successfully secured increased state aid to CUNY without the imposition of tuition.

The tradition of tuition-free CUNY was captured best by its founder, Townsend Harris, who proclaimed at the founding of the Free Academy (the predecessor to the city’s first municipal college) in 1847: “Open the doors to all—Let the children of the rich and the poor take their seats together and know of no distinction save that of industry, good conduct and intellect.” This mission was realized primarily through a free tuition policy that was maintained at the city-supported municipal colleges for 129 years. Yet the rationale for Bowker’s plan and the strong opposition to it reveals how the tuition-free policy at the municipal colleges, which would finally end in 1976 following the city’s fiscal crisis, came up against real challenges of financing the system as demand grew.

Interestingly, the history of a tuition-free CUNY has come into question recently by the university’s central administration. In the nearly forty years since tuition was imposed, the university can legitimately claim to provide a low-cost higher education at a time of tuition hikes and rising student debt. But in recent issues of CUNY Matters, the newspaper published by the central office of the university, the administration has attempted to strengthen this claim by challenging the image of CUNY as having once been free but is no longer. The reality of free tuition at CUNY, according to an editorial titled “When Tuition At CUNY Was Free, Sort Of” (2010), is “more complicated.” The article raises two historical facts that complicate the historical reality of free tuition. The first is that, starting in 1909, non-matriculated students began attending evening sessions at the school of general studies at the recently relocated (to its current Morningside Heights location) and expanded City College of New York. But these non-matriculated students, unlike their matriculated counterparts in the daytime sessions, paid for their courses in full without any financial assistance from the city. Furthermore, by 1957, when the municipal colleges expanded to include Hunter, Brooklyn, and Queens, 40 percent of the 60,000 students attending the municipal colleges paid tuition rates of $300 a year. The CUNY Matters article draws from these facts the implication that in reality CUNY’s tuition policy before the 1970s was that of “merit-based free tuition” which did not benefit all students equally.

CUNY Matters is purposefully challenging those “who remain wistful for the return of traditional free tuition for all as a more just societal imperative, despite CUNY’s evolution, financing structure and state-funded status along with SUNY, which has always charged tuition” (2011). Sociologist Sherry Gorelick, who has written extensively on the history of City College of New York, might be the kind of person the editors of CUNY Matters had in mind when they made such a charge. For Gorelick, CUNY had been, until the imposition of tuition in 1976, a “living criticism of tuition-charging private and public institutions” (1980, p. 29). Furthermore, free tuition had became a “pawn” in political struggles throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. Gorelick points to how Governor Rockefeller’s repeatly tried to impose tuition at CUNY as it had in 1961 across the SUNY campuses. But, with CUNY, Rockefeller had been “thwarted for fifteen years by the continual struggle of working class and lower middle class people, supported by New York City politicians, to save free tuition” (p.23). CUNY Matters does not consider the significance of Rockefeller’s failed attempts and the local resistance to them that allowed for the successful maintenance of free tuition at CUNY. On the other hand, Gorelick does not address the instructional fees charged to evening-session students that figure so centrally in the CUNY Matters articles.

With these conflicting understandings of CUNY’s tuition policies as a backdrop, this article is an attempt to begin a reconstruction of the history of tuition, free and charged, at CUNY that addresses such apparent gaps in both of these narratives. Like CUNY Matters, I accept that the principle of free tuition had become in fact a merit-based privilege. And though I agree with Gorelick that different interests collided in the struggle to impose tuition, a historical analysis of the maintenance and termination of CUNY’s tuition-free policy must be first and foremost be understood within the constraints on the city’s ability to appropriate the funds necessary to expand CUNY during a period of massive growth in American higher education often referred to as the “Golden Age” in American higher education. For much of this period, the expansion of public higher education in New York State lagged behind most other states, a product of conservative state policy that gave way only under growing demographic, political, and economic pressures. When public higher education eventually did expand under Governor Rockefeller in the 1960s, the expansion would be at odds with the free tuition policy at CUNY. This article reconsiders the history of tuition policy at CUNY as a way to understand the tension between expansion and the free-tuition policy, which reshaped the institution throughout the 1960s and early 1970s.

An Underdeveloped Public Sector

The history of free public higher education in New York City often begins at the moment when Townsend Harris helped establish the Free Academy in 1847 following a city referendum where a clear majority of voters supported the creation of a city-supported college. In one of the few institutional histories of the municipal colleges, Duncan Pardue and Suzanne Ryder have pushed that history even further back to the elections of 1838 when the Workingmen’s Party had campaigned on extending free education beyond elementary school (Pardue & Ryder, 1973, p. 1). The importance of the origins of public higher education in New York City is that it represented an egalitarian mission to “extend the benefits of education gratuitously” to any student who had graduated from the city’s common schools (p. 1).

At the state level, the weak commitment to public higher education reflected a prioritization of private institutions by the State’s Board of Regents. The Regents had been “invested with powers of incorporation, visitation, expenditure of available unrestricted funds, and the right to award degrees beyond the Bachelor and Master of Arts” (Glazer, 1981, p. 149). But since its early days, the Regents had preferred to provide state aid to New York State students attending private institutions. The lack of state support for public higher education made the 1847 founding of the Free Academy in New York City particularly significant. Though the state legislature had established the Literature Fund in 1813 in order to improve the academic quality of schools, the Regents had given exclusive eligibility to access the fund to private institutions. The first public college in the state, the Normal School at Albany, had been founded only three years prior. Townsend Harris, when he won approval of the Free Academy, argued that the public monies in the Literature Fund ought to be put toward a public academy for the common school graduates in New York City, instead of being appropriated only for the four existing private institutions in the city. In establishing the Free Academy, Governor John E. Young signed into law the authorization that the New York City Board of Education “establish a free academy in the city… for the purpose of extending the benefits of education gratuitously to persons who have been pupils in the common schools in the said city and county of New York” (Laws of State of New York, 70th session, vol. I, Albany, 1847, 208, quoted in Glazer, 1981, pp. 132–133). Coming two decades before the state would approve free education in the state’s common schools, the founding of the Free Academy projected a progressive vision of equal opportunity at the same time as its uniqueness reflected the status quo of a state government oriented primarily on private institutions. Thus, the origins of higher education offered “gratuitously” in New York City underscore a long history of unwillingness on the part of New York state, most notably the Board of Regents, to underwrite the costs of public higher education.

Nor had federal policy significantly affected the growth of New York City’s public higher education in these early years. The Morrill Land Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890 used federal funds to spur states to build public institutions of higher education. But in New York the funds had gone to an agricultural college at a private institution, Cornell University, rather than an independent public institution. State-supported higher education in New York City expanded slowly in the years surrounding the passage of the two Morrill Acts. The Free Academy, which had been renamed the College of the City of New York in 1866, was supplemented in 1870 by the Normal College for Women, which would later be renamed Hunter College. Though the city’s population soared at the turn of the century as it spread out geographically across the recently consolidated five boroughs, new colleges (rather than the branches of Hunter in the Bronx and City College in downtown Manhattan) would not be established outside of Manhattan till Brooklyn and Queens colleges were founded in the 1930s.

The addition of colleges in Brooklyn and Queens came in response to growing public demands for expansion, which would finally precipitate the major amendment to the Education Law in 1926 under Governor Alfred E. Smith. The legislation sought to establish a board of higher education in any city of a million or more inhabitants by consolidating any existing boards of trustees of public colleges. Already by 1926 New York City’s population was close to 7 million, nearly double what it had been at the turn of the century. Yet when Governor Smith consolidated the municipal colleges in New York City (City College and Hunter) under a new Board of Higher Education, the system was educating a meager 8,500 students annually. Consolidation, in of itself, did not solve the problem of expanding opportunity to meet growing demand. Absent from the new law was any mention of the state supporting the expansion of the municipal colleges, presumably because the municipal governments were expected to fully support them through local revenues. Though the fact that it took still another decade before the next municipal college was built in Brooklyn was not only due to lack of funds. Education historian Harold S. Wechsler has documented the significant role that Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler played in limiting the growth of the municipal college system. Wechsler found that “Butler, exploiting his powerful position in the state Republican party, exerted considerable behind the scenes influence with the Legislature, the State Education Department, and the Governor in opposition” (1977, p. 192) to bills introduced in the state legislature in 1906 and 1907. Instead of a full-scale university, Butler pushed instead for a smaller branch of City College as a way to avoid posing a threat to Columbia. Furthermore, while demands for a state university grew throughout the 1920s and 1930s, “Butler and his allies in the State Education Department and on the Board of Regents had no intention of heeding them” (p. 194).

Despite providing no additional state funding, the Education Law of 1926 did shift the state’s position on tuition-free public higher education. The new law reaffirmed the founding commitment of the Free Academy to offer education tuition-free to the city’s residents. The law called on the newly created boards to “furnish the benefits of collegiate education gratuitously to citizens who are actual residents of the city” (Laws of New York, 1926). The matter of non-tuition fees such as fees for library, laboratory, and locker usage, and books was left to the discretion of each board. However, not all of the students attending City College and Hunter in 1926 were being furnished with collegiate education gratuitously. While full-time day session students did not have to pay tuition, they were required to pay general or special fees such as for the use of the libraries or laboratories. Moreover, some students had been required to pay tuition in the form of pre-credit instructional fees after late day sessions were started in 1910 and evening sessions in 1917. With these changes to their fee structures, the municipal colleges began a process of developing different policies related to tuition and fees at the same time as they sought to accommodate more students in their institutions. While the Education Law of 1926 had required municipal boards to provide higher education tuition-free, in reality the scope of that mandate did not cover an increasing number of students attending the municipal colleges.

Financing the construction of facilities in the municipal college system naturally presented a major hurdle for expanding opportunity. Though the new Board of Higher Education was quick to endorse a new college in Brooklyn in its early meetings in 1926, it would take another decade to select a site and work out the financing with the city’s Board of Estimate. The Board could use the instructional fees it was charging students, as I have discussed already, in addition to city appropriations, to fund operations, but a more significant stream of financing was necessary to fund the capital construction needed to increase capacity. The upfront costs necessitated incurring debt, for which the city had limited capacity under the state constitution. The state government had greater capacity to provide such funds but these would not materialize to any significant degree until the 1960s once Governor Nelson D. Rockefeller initiated an aggressive expansion of the state university. While new municipal colleges opened in Brooklyn and Queens in the 1930s, the municipal colleges responded to the growing demand for higher education by New York City’s residents by making admissions more selective, thus limiting the free-tuition mandate to the most talented and capable students.

The limited scope of the free-tuition mandate must be understood alongside the conservative role of the state government, primarily exercised through the Board of Regents. As with the Literature Fund discussed above, the Regents, starting in the early twentieth century, had used state funds to provide merit scholarships instead of directly supporting public institutions. According to Judith Glazer, the state government had by 1938 “confirmed its position that public higher education should not be expanded, but that access to higher education should be aided by giving more scholarships, doubling the number of awards and tripling the amount of stipends from $100 to $300 a year” (Glazer, 1981, p. 183).

Only as pressure increased on the state to take a stronger lead in expanding educational opportunities after the Second World War did the Regents find themselves at loggerheads with the Governor and the Legislature over the future direction of higher education policy. Unable to escape pressure to intervene, the Regents formed a Committee on Postwar Planning in Education in 1943. The plan departed significantly from the limited scope the Regents had embraced in the past. The plan called for the establishment of twenty-two Institutes of Applied Arts and Sciences to be administered by the State Education Department and able to accommodate 100,000 potential students across the state. Additionally, these two-year institutes were to be fully financed by the state and hence free of tuition. The Regents’ endorsement of such an expansive state-led project marked a break from its traditional role. Frank C. Abbott assessed these changes in a history of the Regents:

The long struggle over unification of the educational system, in which the Governor, Legislature, Department of Public Instruction, Regents, educational constituency and Constitutional Conventions engaged, was in large degree an outgrowth of the fact that the character of the educational system itself had changed and the structure of state organization no longer fit the underlying educational and political conditions. (Abbott, 1958, p. 53)

While the Regents changed their position on direct state support, their postwar plan narrowly confined the state’s efforts in public higher education to technical and vocational training. It affirmed that New York, unlike other states, did not operate a central public university and instead post-secondary education would continue to be provided mainly through private institutions. The plan implicitly accepted the Regents’ preference for private institutions by narrowly confining public higher education to “agriculture, ceramics, forestry, home economics, maritime training, teacher preparation, and veterinary medicine” (University of the State of New York, 1944, p. 16). Also the proposal called for an expansion of the Regents scholarships, which would again benefit the private sector, given the dominance of private institutions of higher education in the state. The Regents’ postwar plan, while it accepted the need to expand public higher education in the state also maintained the status quo in the state. Glazer (1981) goes as far as to suggest that “the Regents took little interest in efforts to democratize education” (p. 150). These recommendations, which would later be approved by newly-elected Governor Thomas Dewey and the Legislature in 1943, stand in stark contrast to at least one strain of federal policy advocated at the same time. The latter promoted a different perspective on community colleges as public institutions that were crucial to expanding equality of opportunity and democratic citizenship in a postwar economy, whereas the former confined New York State’s expansion efforts to technical and vocational training.

The onset of World War II had spurred a range of public policy changes as state managers in the federal and state governments responded to changing economic and social conditions. The municipal college system in New York City had responded early when the Board of Higher Education relaxed its policies of admission for members of the armed forces. In the Board’s minutes from the fall of 1941 we find the “the admission of members of the armed forces to classes on a space available basis with waivers of registration fees, residency requirements and admissions criteria and the use of Hunter’s Bronx facilities by the Navy” (Pardue & Ryder, 1973, p. 42). But such admissions exceptions were minor when compared to what came as the war drew to a close.

As returning veterans were integrated back into an American society that had changed dramatically under the burden of waging war, higher education was increasingly promoted to meet the labor needs of the postwar economy as well as a way to deflect labor market pressures caused by returning veterans. The most significant federal policy for higher education in the immediate postwar period was the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, more commonly referred to as the G.I. Bill, by which the federal government extended funds for veterans to pursue higher education and vocational training. It would be through this program that over two million veterans would pursue some college education in the next decade. This support had a dramatic effect on higher education in New York: when compared to numbers before the war, enrollments across the state’s public and private institutions more than doubled to 269,112 students by 1947, with veterans accounting for close to half of the total (Glazer, 1981, p. 163).

What was the specific effect of the G.I. Bill on public higher education in New York State, which had remained largely undeveloped by 1945? New York had the most colleges of any state in the country at the end of the war, yet was forty-seventh in terms of state support for higher education. Thus with the massive influx of federal public monies into higher education, the state’s public sector was at a clear disadvantage in its ability to capitalize on the benefits that flowed from the G.I. Bill. Federal funds would instead go towards the dominant private higher education sector in New York State, which could only exacerbate the underdevelopment of its public sector. When New York City expanded public institutions in the postwar period it challenged the state’s longstanding reliance on private institutions. Pardue and Ryder (1973) have even pointed out that the shortage of teachers and limited opportunities for graduate and postgraduate study at the conclusion of the war were products of “the State’s reliance on private colleges and universities outside of New York City and the beginning of a squeeze on endowments that limited the capacities of the private institutions” (p. 16). As long as private higher education institutions made decisions over investments in new facilities and hiring of additional faculty, the state’s ability to increase the capacity of its higher education would be crippled as it faced its postwar conditions.

The reliance on the private sector also created a problem for students seeking affordable higher education in the postwar period. The high tuition charges at private colleges would only be temporarily relieved through funds provided under the G.I. Bill, as these funds had to be used within 12 years of completing military service. In a 1948 report, New York Governor Thomas Dewey had cautioned “economic exclusions will again operate unless public action is taken” (Young & Carmichael, 1948, p. 15). State managers were increasingly finding their reliance on private institutions as insufficient to meet the growing demand for affordable college education.

As the postwar period ushered in a new era of expansion in New York State’s system of public higher education, it also introduced a significant transformation of the free-tuition policy at the municipal colleges. Based on letters and memos from Board members, Glazer (1981) examines the impact of the G.I. Bill on the municipal college tuition policy. The original draft of the G.I. Bill had only covered out-of-state tuition charges. The municipal colleges, which at the time had enrolled only residents of the city, would have been excluded from the influx of federal dollars according to the original draft of the bill. Only after political pressure was applied by New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and the city’s congressional representatives, was an amendment included before final passage of the G.I. Bill that would allow colleges that did not charge tuition– such as City College, Hunter College, Brooklyn College, and Queens College– to receive payments for veterans’ education according to a “fair and reasonable compensation as will not exceed $500 for an ordinary school year” (Glazer, 1981, pp. 207–8). Under this revised bill, the Veteran’s Administration, which had been tasked with distributing these funds to institutions on behalf of the veterans, finally accepted the basic terms of the municipal colleges’ free-tuition mandate. They had argued that according to New York’s state law the Board of Higher Education had to provide veterans, as it had with matriculated students, “the benefits of collegiate education gratuitously to citizens who are actual residents of the City. A “paper tuition” of $9.20 per credit hour was negotiated between the Board and the Veterans’ Administration to facilitate the transferring of funds under the terms of the G.I. Bill. The resulting revenue to the municipal colleges was significant: it accounted for a quarter of the colleges’ operating budgets in the years while the G.I. Bill was in effect (Pardue & Ryder, 1973, p. 40). This rate would be adjusted to $11.40 per credit hour in 1949, making it $4.40 more than what non-matriculated students were paying at the time. And it was raised again in 1951 to $13.16 per credit. Glazer (1981) remarks that these adjusted rates were “the first instance in which the Board negotiated a tuition rate for matriculated undergraduates, although technically, it was the V.A. and not the student who paid the bills” (p. 215). Thus federal aid, in addition to emphasizing the need for added capacity in public higher institutions, also introduced for the first time a tuition charge for matriculated full-time students of the municipal colleges, even if it only appeared as a paper transaction of funds between the federal agency and the colleges and the city government.

The inclusion of the municipal college system in New York City in the coverage of the G.I. Bill had come late in the process and had been an exception to a federal policy that was otherwise premised on the assumption that higher education institutions charged tuition. While federal policy in the 1960s and 1970s would shift further away from the model of tuition-free higher education, federal higher education tuition policy in the immediate postwar period was far from settled. The growing national consensus after World War II had been to expand higher education opportunity primarily through an expansion of the public system, primarily community college. Though, along with calls for expansion, there were also parallel calls for the adoption of a free public higher education system.

President Harry Truman established the President’s Commission on Higher Education in 1946 to recommend how to meet the needs for higher education in the postwar period. The commission was named for its chair, George F. Zook, a prominent American educator who had served as FDR’s U.S. Commissioner of Education since 1933 and as the head of the American Council of Education since 1934. As Gordon (1975) has correctly highlighted, the Zook commission stressed the importance of community colleges to meet the growing demand for college education and the need for greater technical training in the postwar economy. But the Commission also recommended making “education through the fourteenth grade available in the same way that high school education is now available” which “means that tuition-free education should be available in public institutions to all youth for the traditional freshman and sophomore years or for the traditional-year junior college course” (United States Department of Education, 1948, p. 37). The commission reasoned that providing tuition-free education was necessary in overcoming the economic barriers that prevented students from pursuing college education, barriers that had mostly been lifted in elementary and secondary schools by making education at these levels free, public, and compulsory. By arguing for additional financial assistance to “counteract the effect of family incomes so low that even tuition-free schooling is a financial impossibility for their children,” (p. 38) the Zook commission had advocated an egalitarian vision of public higher education that went beyond even the original mission of the Free Academy. While the only tangible “outcome of these recommendations was that the Truman administration sponsored unsuccessful legislation for a national scholarship program” (Glazer, 1981, p. 185), the Zook commission’s recommendations were a prominent policy argument at the federal level for expanding free public higher education as the basis for meeting the nation’s postwar needs.

In New York State, a commission created by Governor Dewey proposed an alternative to the Regents’ postwar plan: build a new state university system where both liberal and technical education would be fully state-supported. Like the recommendations of the Zook Commission, this plan looked to public institutions as the primary means to address postwar needs. The Regents’ plan had restricted state support to only two-year technical institutes and so, unsurprisingly, had drawn support from private colleges which would not be competing with such public institutions (Glazer, 1981, p. 162). As was the case at the federal level, state managers in New York had concluded that the limited higher educational opportunities required swift government action. In 1948, it founded the State University of New York (SUNY). The new system would play a crucial role in providing affordable options for the growing number of students seeking college education as well as supplying the necessary “manpower” for a competitive state economy.

The founding of the new state university system had also been shaped by growing political pressure for state involvement in higher education within the larger struggle against racial, religious, and ethnic discrimination. As Biondi (2006) points out in her account of civil rights legislation in postwar New York, the “fair employment law in 1945 inspired efforts to win other antidiscrimination laws, including one covering private colleges and universities” (p. 106). A 1945 study by the American Jewish Congress-led Committee on Law and Social Action (CLSA) had uncovered a “quota system” at several colleges that discriminated against minority groups. Specifically, the CLSA report had found that medical and professional schools had limited the number of Jewish and African-American students. The civil rights groups that coalesced around the issue of educational discrimination modeled their efforts on their prior success in winning the Ives-Quinn Law of 1945 for fair employment. Biondi finds that these groups “successfully lobbied the governor to appoint a temporary investigating commission, engaged in grassroots education and mobilization, marshaled studies, and won bipartisan support both upstate and downstate” (p. 107).

In addition to the important role of the civil rights coalition, Glazer (1981) lays out the other forces involved, each with its particular interests at stake. Among these interests were the private non-sectarian colleges, the Board of Regents, Governor Dewey, Mayor LaGuardia, and the denominational colleges. Her analysis is drawn primarily from the analysis in Carmichael (1955) of the interest group politics underlying the Temporary Commission for the Need for a State University, which Dewey had formed in 1946 under pressure to create a state university system. The commission was chaired by Owen D. Young, a former member of the Regents and former chairman of the board at General Electric. The Young Commission report was released in 1948 with recommendations that yielded three significant legislative acts that would lay the groundwork for shifting the balance between private and public higher education institutions in the State:

  1. The Fair Educational Practices Law, which became the first state law to bar discrimination in private universities (Biondi, 2006, p. 98).
  2. The State Community College Law, which would provide state aid in equal proportion to local aid and tuition charges resulting in the locally-driven establishment of twenty-two community colleges for technical as well as liberal arts education (Glazer, 1981, p. 169).
  3. The bill that created the State University out of the existing 31 state-supported institutions as a new corporate entity under the administrative and planning control of a Board of Trustees to be appointed by the Governor. This bill recommended new state-supported four-year colleges and medical schools as part of this system. The State University legislation also significantly included aid for teacher training through the municipal colleges in New York City equal to the proportion of teachers they trained within the whole state (Carmichael, 1955, p. 199).

State aid and tuition

The response of the NYC Board of Higher Education to the Young Commission’s recommendations reflected the tense relationship of the municipal colleges to the newly formed state university system. Glazer (1981) observes that the creation of SUNY “alerted the Board of Higher Education to the need to centralize its future planning on a long-range basis” (p. 170). The immediate effect was to push the Board to develop its own master plan for the municipal colleges under the guidance of Donald Cottrell, then the dean of education of Ohio State University. Using projections of a 50 percent increase in enrollments within the following decade, Cottrell’s recommendations reflected the growing national consensus that two-year community colleges would be central to expanding higher education opportunity. Cottrell also concluded that the remedy for the slow construction of municipal college facilities in the city necessitated greater cooperation among the colleges as well as collective efforts to take full advantage of the available financial support of the state and federal government. In order to secure those resources, Cottrell proposed merging the four municipal colleges (CCNY, Hunter, Queens, and Brooklyn) into the newly created State University. In this regard, he was certainly not alone. Cottrell had quoted Board of Higher Education chairman Ordway Tead:

I repeat that the year 1948 is destined to mark a turning point in the career of our city colleges. And the basic reason is that in varying ways the city colleges of the future will have to become in this locality the core of a splendidly conceived and generously developed New York State University system. (Glazer, 1981, p. 172)

George Strayer and Louis Yavner made the same recommendation for a merger with SUNY again in 1951 in their report to the Mayor’s Committee on Management of the city’s financial problems. In “Administrative Management of the School System in New York City,” they had recommended this course of action as a solution to the financial challenges facing the city with regard to the construction of new facilities. Pardue and Ryder find the source of the challenge in that “college capital construction was being held back because it had to compete in the City budget with schools, hospitals, transportation and other municipal facilities” (p. 45). The constitutionally imposed debt limits on the city hamstrung its capacity to finance capital construction at the municipal colleges. This led Strayer and Yavner to conclude that a merger with the newly formed SUNY would make available the funds the city itself could not commit to the needed construction of new higher education facilities. In addition to the merger, the report had also recommended the imposition of tuition, “citing the need to increase resources, take advantage of state largesse, and legitimize the services being provided by the municipal colleges as a state responsibility” (Glazer, 1981, p. 174). Given the recently passed State Community College Law, tuition would make state aid available, but only according to the proportional formula that placed the bulk of educational costs on local initiative. Thus in order to acquire greater funds, the Board of Higher Education found itself at a crossroads: to give up its autonomy by amalgamating with SUNY in order to secure state funds or to give up its free tuition policy in order to remain separate from the new upstart state system.

While the Board of Higher Education would ultimately reject a merger with SUNY, it did acquiesce in 1953 to state pressure when it agreed to charge tuition at the newly opened community colleges under its jurisdiction. In 1952 the legislature had authorized the State University Trustees to transfer the Institute of Applied Arts and Sciences located in Brooklyn to the Board of Higher Education if the Board agreed to sponsor a community college in New York City. According to the legislative mandate for proportional aid in the 1948 Education Law, which required one-third support from tuition charges, the Board’s approval of the sponsorship of New York Institute of Applied Arts and Sciences at its July 23, 1953 meeting necessitated a major break from its more than century-long tuition policy. As Glazer (1981) highlights, the new community college “tuition charge was the first time matriculated undergraduates in the city colleges would pay to attend a degree program, and it set the precedent for future assaults on a heretofore inviolate policy of free tuition” (p. 175). Similarly, Gordon concluded that the decision to charge tuition at community colleges “flew in the face of the recommendations of every major study which had recently addressed the subject–both on the national level (the Truman Commission Report) and locally (the Cottrell Report, the “Diekhoff” study of the feasibility of establishing a community college on Staten Island, and the Strayer-Yavner Report) — all of which argued for free community college education” (1975, p. 172). Interestingly, in Pardue and Ryder’s account of the Board’s establishment of community colleges in the 1950s there is no mention made of the introduction of tuition.

Thus, city sponsorship of new community colleges reveals how the linkage of tuition policy to state aid was first established. After a decade of reports recommending the expansion of community colleges the Board finally moved ahead with establishing its own community colleges but it did so by breaking significantly from its original mandate to provide “gratuitous education.” The free tuition mandate came under further stress throughout the 1960s as Governor Rockefeller initiated the greatest period of expansion in the history of the state’s public higher education system.

When Nelson Rockefeller became Governor of New York in 1958, federal dollars had created an incentive to centralize the planning and administration of higher education within SUNY. In the context of the ongoing Cold War, Russia’s Sputnik launch in 1957 prodded the U.S. government to take aggressive steps to expand scientific and technological educational opportunities. In much the same way that the G.I. Bill was a response to the conditions created by World War II, Congress responded to Sputnik by passing the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) in September 1958. Title II of NDEA was particularly significant for higher education. It established the National Defense Student Loan as the first national higher education loan program focused on increasing enrollments in areas connected to changing global concerns that required additional teachers, particularly in science, math, and foreign languages. Glazer underscores the impact the NDEA had on the higher education capacities of state governments: “A major outcome of NDEA was the establishment of state offices to review, approve, monitor, and audit college and universities receiving federal dollars, making the state and federal governments partners in future efforts to influence higher education policy” (p. 186).

When Rockefeller assumed office, he was immediately determined to build out the state’s public higher education system. His priority for the following decade was clearly the SUNY system, which would receive the lion’s share of state support. But also, in April 1959, after only a few months in office, he signed the Mitchell-Brook Act. This legislation was the first time the municipal colleges had been granted state aid for their general operating budgets, whereas earlier aid had been directed only toward teacher education or community colleges. State support was set initially at one-sixth of the operating costs, though that was raised within a year to one-third. Yet included in the legislation was a statutory requirement that the municipal colleges admit students who were residents of the state but not of the city proper, on the condition that they pay tuition to cover one-third of the educational operating costs. This demand followed the proportional formula the state had imposed starting in 1948 for state aid to locally sponsored community colleges. Thus in return for significant state aid, the Board of Higher Education had again altered its free education mandate, this time to charge out-of-city residents of the state who were matriculated undergraduates at its senior college $300 per year. This sum was comparable to what the Board had already been charging matriculated students in associate degree programs at their community colleges.

In December 1959 Rockefeller formed a committee to propose a master plan to meet both the growing demand for higher education and the changing manpower needs of the state. He appointed three prominent education experts: Henry Heald, who was the president of the Ford Foundation and former president of New York University; John Gardner, who was president of the Carnegie Corporation and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching with prior experience reviewing higher education in the state under Rockefeller’s predecessor; and Marion Folsom, who was the former Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and also had been central to the formulation of the NDEA legislation (Glazer-Raymo, 1989, p. 6). The report from the Heald Committee would serve as the blueprint for the expansion of higher education during Rockefeller’s tenure as governor.

Rockefeller had inherited in 1958 a SUNY system of 46 colleges enrolling 41,000 students. The Heald Committee recommended a reorganization of the existing colleges to increase enrollment by converting the 11 existing colleges of education into multi-purpose liberal art colleges, as well as adding two graduate schools. Along with the dramatic expansion of SUNY through appropriation of new state funds, the Heald Committee also recommended the consolidation of the existing municipal colleges into an independent City University of New York, whose planning would be coordinated with SUNY by the State Board of Regents. This last point was significant for Rockefeller’s efforts because during his governorship the Regents came increasingly under his control through an increased number of Governor-appointed new members. Finally, the Heald Committee had recommended an end to the free-tuition mandate that had remained at several of the state’s public colleges and at the municipal senior colleges. In its place they recommended a uniform tuition charge across all public colleges in the state.

Whereas the Zook Commission had argued in 1948 that free tuition and financial assistance were essential to lowering economic barriers to increased higher education enrollments, the Heald Committee argued instead that aid should be directed at helping those students who could not afford to go to college by increasing scholarships and loans. The report dismissed the free-tuition policy as outmoded: “Decisions on tuition made ten, twenty, or even a hundred years ago are no longer relevant and should be changed now that financial demands are mounting and can be expected to continue to mount at an accelerating rate in the decade or two ahead” (Heald, Gardner & Folsom, 1960, p. 35). In addition to tuition being necessary for prudent financing of expansion of public colleges, the report reasoned that free tuition was bad policy in terms of equalizing opportunities among different socio-economic groups of students. Free tuition was found to benefit the wrong group of students: students going to colleges “where tuition is free and fees are low are financially able to pay a tuition-and-fee charge comparable to that charged by other state universities and municipal colleges” (p. 35). Abolishing tuition would, according to this argument, actually ensure a more just system where those of merit had equal opportunity to state aid. Scholarships and loans would be directed efficiently instead to students most in need of the support to overcome economic barriers to achieving a college education.

When Rockefeller signed the Aid to Higher Education Act on April 11, 1961, he put in place several of the Heald Committee’s recommendations. At the same time that the state created the Scholar Incentive Program to provide direct student aid to students enrolled in any higher education institution in the state, it also ended the state’s free-tuition mandate (Holy, 1962, p. 53). Rather than simply imposing tuition across the state, the Education Law of 1961 removed the free-tuition mandate that had its roots in the original creation of the Free Academy in 1847 and empowered the SUNY Board of Trustee and the NYC Board of Higher Education to set tuition policy in their respective institutions. Given the increasing dependence on the state for operating and capital construction funding, Rockefeller was able to use state funds as leverage to impose a uniform tuition across the state. Within two years SUNY campuses adopted a uniform tuition of $400 for its undergraduates. In January 1963, when the SUNY Board of Trustees announced its adoption of a uniform tuition policy, it noted that 24 colleges in the SUNY system had remained tuition free by law since being incorporated in 1948 (State University of New York Board of Trustees, 1963, p. 5). The SUNY board provided numbers that might come as a shock to those who have associated free tuition only with public colleges in New York City: In 1962, out of the 68,000 full-time students at SUNY colleges, 32,700 (48 percent) attended tuition-free. While non-instructional fees at SUNY colleges were substantial, ranging from $75 to $375 a year, the imposition of tuition in the 1960s was not a phenomenon unique to students attending the municipal colleges. Nor was resistance: on at least one SUNY campus, students in a fraternity burned an effigy of Rockefeller to protest the announced tuition schedule (“Seek To End Free College Tuitions”, 1963).

The NYC Board of Higher Education faced the challenge of acquiring state funds to expand the municipal college system while maintaining its autonomy from the state and thus its ability to continue its policy of free tuition. While free tuition in the 1960s has been characterized as “tradition and dogma” (Glazer, 1981) or a “hallowed principle” (Gordon, 1975, p. 89), the conflict over tuition policy reveals the limitations that the municipal and state political economy placed on expanding higher education opportunities.

The Education Law of 1961 had established the City University of New York (CUNY) by consolidating the existing senior and community colleges. Following the repeal of the free tuition mandate in state law, local groups, as well as state legislators, struggled for several years to reverse the decision as well as cancel its potential effects. The local response in New York City was to initiate greater coordination and centralization of the municipal colleges as a bulwark to Rockefeller’s plans. In May 1959, the Board of Higher Education formed its own blue-ribbon committee to develop a fifteen-year master plan, among other things, to fend off the imposition of tuition charges at the municipal colleges. The Committee to Look to the Future on the Establishment of a City University, as it was called, was exclusively composed of members of the Board and chaired by Mary Ingraham, who had served on the Board since 1938. By the end of 1959 the committee had produced its initial findings and recommendations, which included the creation of an independent City University for city residents that would be similar to the State University system. To gain university status, the Ingraham committee recommended the development of graduate studies at City College. And most significantly for the issue of tuition policy, it abjured the efforts of Rockefeller, the Heald Committee, and the State to impose tuition based on the perceived need to finance expansion of the municipal colleges. Instead of tuition and fees, the Ingraham Committee argued that external sources such as state and federal grants, as well as philanthropic sources, would be sufficient to effectively subsidize the construction of new facilities for building out the municipal colleges.

When the Ingraham Committee set out to produce its master plan based on these recommendations, it consulted Thomas Holy who had been a member of the team in California that recommended the tripartite enrollment system that would later be adopted in 1960 in California’s famous Master Plan (Gordon, 1975, p. 162). Holy and his staff presented their plan to the Board of Higher Education in 1962. They summarized the costs charged to students not matriculated in bachelor degree programs at the senior colleges:

Limited matriculants or special students and those registered for diplomas or for associate degrees other than nursing science pay $9.00 a credit, $9.00 for the first hour in excess of the number of credits, and $6.00 for each additional hour in excess of the number of credits. Non-matriculants and holders of baccalaureate degrees who take undergraduate courses pay $12.50 for each credit, $12.50 for the first hour in excess of the number of credits, and $8.50 for each additional hour in excess of the number of credits. Graduate courses carry a tuition charge of $20.00 a credit, and $10.00 for every class hour in excess of the number of credits.

Community Colleges require New York State residents enrolled in the Day Session to pay $150 tuition a semester. Non-New York State residents pay $300 tuition a semester in the Day Session. (Holy, 1962, p. 79)

While Glazer (1981) has pointed out that by “referring to tuition charges as instructional fees prior to 1961, the Board was able to sidestep the state legislative mandate” (p. 226), the figures provided in the Holy report make explicit the extent to which the policy at the municipal colleges had become differentiated by the early 1960s. Though it did not address the fees charged at CUNY’s four-year colleges, the Holy plan boldly challenged the tuition charges at the city’s community colleges. Having commended the historic free tuition policy for matriculated students enrolled full-time in baccalaureate degree programs at senior colleges, Holy and his staff criticized the Board for the “gross inequities” (p. 162) of restricting the policy of free tuition by only admitting those with better high school records into programs covered by the free tuition policy. The report reasoned that given the great need for college graduates with associate degrees, it was critical that tuition be waived for all of the city’s students pursing either baccalaureate or associate degrees. Finding the tuition aid from the Scholar Incentive Act of 1961 insufficient, the Holy plan concluded that unless the Board waived all tuition “the City will place a premium on the relatively few students who qualify for baccalaureate degree programs and will penalize a large group who are not able to meet tuition charges but whose contribution to the welfare of the City will be greatly enhanced by further training” (p. 162). Despite these recommendations, the Board would not end tuition at community colleges until 1964, when another push by the state to impose a uniform tuition led Mayor Wagner to secure the city’s financial support for the remaining one-third of operating costs that had been required by state law to be financed through tuition (Glazer, 1981, p. 220).

While tuition and fees were certainly economic barriers to access, the existing facilities also created a physical barrier to entry. In Rockefeller’s 14 years as governor (ending in 1973), SUNY and CUNY grew into the nation’s first and third largest multi-campus public university systems. SUNY in this period went from 46 colleges enrolling 41,000 students in 1960 to 64 colleges enrolling 357,614 in 1975. And CUNY grew with similar rapidity, expanding from 7 colleges enrolling 85,269 to 20 colleges enrolling 250,818 students by 1975. Such an impressive expansion of the state’s public higher education institutions, which ultimately displaced the historically dominant private institutions, came through massive expansion of state support. State spending on operating costs for higher education climbed to $928 million from slightly more than $60 million during Rockefeller’s administration, increasing aid to students attending private universities as it also built out the state system (McClelland & Magdovitz, 1981, pp. 144–9). While the operating budgets depended on direct tax appropriations or on scholarships, grants, and loans approved by the legislature or federal government, the construction costs required, as McClelland and Magdovitz have characterized it, “more debt maneuvering” (p. 178). The state’s constitution since 1846 had limited the state’s power to issue debt by requiring voters to approve by referendum any increase in the level of state debt. Yet financing for capital projects, like those needed for expanding higher education, required the state to assume debt beyond what Rockefeller and the state were likely to gain from voter approval.

Given the zeal with which Rockefeller pursued construction projects, epitomized by the catchy nickname “Rocky’s Edifice Complex” (McClelland & Magdovitz, 1981, p. 235), the governor and the legislature were able to get around public referendums through the use of public authorities, quasi-private corporate entities created by the legislature since the 1920s with boards of directors appointed by elected state officials. Dewey had established one such public authority, the Dormitory Authority, in 1944 to build student housing at various private colleges in the state. The Dormitory Authority was authorized to issue bonds with the payments for the debt service to be taken from funds supported through any revenues generated by the projects. If there was a shortfall in the payment of the debt, the legislature was morally bound to appropriate funds yearly to cover the shortfall. Future legislatures were not legally bound to commit the necessary funds if the need arose again. Such “moral obligation” bonds allowed the state government to get around the imposed limits on debt by avoiding a legal obligation to appropriate additional funds.

Another mechanism to finance construction was the lease-purchase agreement whereby a public authority would issue bonds to purchase and build on behalf of the state or municipal governments. The public authority would be paid rent, which would go towards paying off the principal and interest on the debt. When the debt was retired, the property would be turned over to the state.

In addition to the Dormitory Authority, the Housing Finance Agency, established in 1960, and the State University Construction Fund, established in 1962, were also crucial to the expansion of SUNY in this period. CUNY’s expansion had also depended on capital funds made available through these public authorities. Most significantly, the legislative struggle in 1965-66 over state funding of CUNY in the wake of the “dummy tuition” controversy ended with the 1966 Ohrenstein Bill set up the City University Construction Fund to extend the borrowing power of the state’s public authorities to the newly formed CUNY system.

Debt-driven expansion using public authority controlled construction funds were not without limits. In getting around the constitutionally imposed limits on debt through the relatively unchecked borrowing power of public authorities, the debt of state and municipal governments ballooned. When Rockefeller left office in 1973 the state-sponsored debt of SUNY was close to $2 billion (McClelland & Magdovitz, 1981, p. 182), though CUNY’s total was a relatively minor (but not insignificant) $274 million. These numbers were part of the $13.3 billion in combined debt that Rockefeller had accrued when he left office, four times the amount it had been in 1962 at the start of the expansion of SUNY.

The financing of construction was a crucial mechanism by which the state challenged the free tuition policy at CUNY. Even though postwar reports and master plans had warned the NYC Board of Higher Education to prepare for the upcoming postwar baby boom, the Board faced an “enrollment crunch” in the 1964-65 school year that would “lead inevitably to rejection of several thousand qualified applicants for CUNY admission, and to raising the entrance requirement for some campuses to as high as a 90 percent school average” (Gordon, 1975, pp. 176–7). Through emergency funds provided by the city, the Board’s “Operation Shoehorn” was able to squeeze three thousand more students into the already overcrowded CUNY colleges. This was only the first wave of record high school graduation numbers in the city, reflecting the demographic bubble of the Baby Boom generation. As demand continued to grow far in excess of CUNY’s capacity, more students were being denied admission as the cut-off points for high school averages at senior colleges gradually climbed. Thus if the Board was to maintain free tuition, it was inevitably restricting access if its facilities were not also expanded. But construction required funds that would necessarily have to be either supported by city and state appropriations or by charges the Board applied to certain groups of students. Tuition and non-instructional fees charges that privileged one group (those attending tuition-free senior colleges) over another (those paying per credit for evening classes or attending community colleges) were in part, then, products of the structural limits on CUNY’s ability to expand effectively. The Board thus could not avoid depending on the state to provide the necessary funding for capital expansion; and it was not willing to establish tuition to gain even more state funding. As one expert on city finances said in a 1978 interview:

CUNY missed the golden age of the sixties when college construction was booming everywhere and campuses were being overbuilt. Its growth was stunted by a recalcitrant Legislature and an unsympathetic Governor, all because of an anachronism–free tuition. The environment (at CUNY) would have been different today if it had moved faster, and had assured the state more of a role in its development (quoted in Glazer, 1981, p. 257).

Maintaining free tuition through the Rockefeller years meant that CUNY would continue to struggle with the problems of inadequate facilities that had plagued the municipal public colleges for several decades, problems that would become more acute as the initial cohorts of postwar Baby Boomers were pounding on CUNY’s doors beginning in the mid-1960s.

The fact that financing expansion became linked to tuition policy can in part be explained by the ideological commitment of Governor Rockefeller to charge students for college education. It is also critical to consider how deeper economic factors shaped the state’s capacity to tax and incur debt. Tuition provided a stable revenue source for guaranteeing bonded debt. This rationalization when deployed by state managers was not simply an ideological cover but had material roots. The link of debt to tuition was necessary because no other option for public financing of massive construction projects was available to the state and municipal governments. The alternatives to financing the debt, either through increased taxes or reshuffling budget priorities, depended on political struggle far too contingent to satisfy the obligations that bound the state to those to whom it had sold its public authority bonds.

In order to finance growth, capital expenditures required the state to take on debt, which necessitated a source of revenue that could be depended on. These constraints imposed on higher education finances were as true for CUNY as they were for SUNY. While SUNY could depend on a uniform tuition after 1963, a tuition-free CUNY was able to service its debt only partially by charging tuition to non-matriculated and graduate students, as well as any non-instructional fees it could collect from its full-time students. Ultimately though, these charges would have to be supplemented significantly by city and state aid. CUNY’s ability to maintain free tuition as it financed its expansion thus depended more and more on infusions of funds from the city and state’s operating budgets.

Operation Shoehorn and Bowker’s “theoretical tuition” proposal in 1965 with which this article began can best be understood as manifestations of the very real challenges that CUNY faced in meeting growing demands for admission without entirely doing away with free tuition. Given its dependence on the state to expand municipal facilities, tuition policy at CUNY was determined with limited autonomy from a state that had aggressively pursued a uniform tuition policy across SUNY. Judith Glazer (1981) concludes that the maintenance of free tuition at CUNY was as the “persistence of dogma and tradition in decision making” (p. 20). But Glazer’s dismal assumes that charging tuition was absolutely necessary to increasing state support. Such an assumption obscures rather than clarifies the limits imposed on public policy by structural and contingent factors in the changing political economy that characterized the postwar period. We can only speculate as to the viability of the “theoretical tuition” if it had, under different political conditions, been imposed in 1965. Perhaps for a time, as Bowker had promised, the net cost to students might not have changed once state and federal aid was used to offset the new tuition charges. But would state and federal student aid have continued to offset costs to students during the 1970s, a decade marked by economic stagnation and hyperinflation? Free tuition, often understood only as a principle with a long tradition, was a public policy shaped by an array of political and economic conditions that began to dramatically shift by the 1970s. As the neoliberal period set in, the maintenance of free tuition through increasing state debt would likely not have escaped the fate of other social provisions. The maintenance of free tuition did come into conflict with the need to expand higher education opportunities for New York City residents. Further inquiry into the political economy of financing public higher education is necessary to determine if greater education opportunity could have been achieved past secondary education without undermining the basis for a free education which had been built in New York City.


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