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Was College Meant to Be Free in the U.S.?

These days, higher education costs students and their families a pretty penny. In fact, according to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2014–2015 school year was $31,231 at private colleges, $9,139 for state residents at public colleges, and $22,958 for out-of-state residents attending public universities. This means a student attending public university today can reasonably expect to pay around $36,555 to $91,832 in tuition and fees for a four-year education. (And those figures, you’ll note, don’t address student loan interest, boarding expenses and the extra debt some borrowers will tack on if they go to graduate school.)

Of course, going to college wasn’t always so expensive. According to a report from Bloomberg, college tuition and fees surged 1,120% between 1978 and 2012, four times faster than the increase in the consumer price index. The spike is worrisome, when you consider all the student loan debt that’s piling up — and possibly infuriating, given that at one time college cost $0 (or very close to it) in America. In fact, according to Franchesca Ramsey of MTV’s Decoded and’s Benjamin O’Keefe, the government intended for higher education institutions to be free when they founded the system back in 1862.

Ramsey and O’Keefe are referring to the Land-Grant College Act of 1862, or Morrill Act, which granted 30,000 acres of land per Congressional seat to each state. The land was to be sold and the proceeds were to be used to fund public colleges centered around agriculture and the mechanical arts. (The military training required by the Act as part of the curriculum ultimately led to the establishment of the Reserve Officer Training Corps.)

Per the Library of Congress, 69 colleges were funded by these land grants, including Cornell University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The Act was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862. A second Morrill Act was passed in 1890 to help finance African-American and Native American schools and colleges.

Free College in the Future?

Of course, we’ve come along way since the Morrill Act and, now the high cost of college, coupled with the Great Recession and its lingering effects on our job market, have caused student loan debts to skyrocket. The total volume of outstanding student loans is more than $1.2 trillion today (up from $600 billion in 2006) and one in four student loan borrowers are currently in default or struggling to stay current on their loans.

The effects these debt levels could have on the economy (big student loan balances, for instance, could be stopping some millennials from buying homes and subsequently bolstering the housing market) have led many 2016 presidential hopefuls to make debt-free colleges, largely in the form of tuition-less state schools, a part of their campaigns. Of course, the election is still a year away and, even then, there is a likely a lot of number-crunching and negotiating that would have to take place before any of these plans became a reality.

For now, borrowers saddled with large student loans can possibly keep debts from spiraling out of control (or at least hurting their credit) by inquiring about income-based repayment options, seeing if they qualify for student loan forgiveness or, even, refinancing with a private lender. (You can also see how your student loans are affecting your credit by viewing your free credit report card every month on

And students getting ready to go off to college can potentially lower costs by seeking out additional funding, in the forms or grants or scholarships, working a part-time job or side gig and attending community college for their first two years before transferring to a four-year institution.

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