By Keith Ellison
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Land Grant College Act into law, laying the groundwork for the largest system of publicly funded universities in the world. Some of America’s greatest colleges, including the University of Minnesota, were created by federal land grants, and were known as “democracy’s colleges” or “people’s colleges.”
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But that vision of a “people’s college” seems awfully remote to a growing number of American students crushed under soaring tuitions and mounting debt. One hundred and fifty years after Lincoln made his pledge, it’s time to make public colleges and universities free for every American.
This idea is easier than it looks. For most of our nation’s history, public colleges and universities have been much more affordable than they are today, with lower tuition, and financial aid that covered a much larger portion of the costs. The first step in making college accessible again, and returning to an education system that serves every American, is addressing the student loan debt crisis.
The cost of attending a four-year college has increased by 1,122 percent since 1978. Galloping tuition hikes have made attending college more expensive today than at any point in U.S. history. At the same time, debt from student loans has become the largest form of personal debt in America—bigger than credit card debt and auto loans. Last year, 38 million American students owed more than $1.3 trillion in student loans.