College tuition and the anti-radical backlash

Will Bunch, a writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, links the high cost of college education today to the conservative backlash against the student protesters of the 1960s.  Here is his argument.

The 1944 G.I. Bill signed by Franklin Roosevelt included a free college benefit almost as an afterthought, since academic and political leaders thought that most returning troops wouldn’t be “college material,” in an era when only 5% of Americans earned bachelor’s degrees and a majority didn’t finish high school.  Instead, the mostly working-class G.I. Bill recipients stunned the nation both in their large numbers and their devotion to taking classes. It was the start of a virtuous cycle that flowed into the unprecedented prosperity of the 1950s and the booming birth rate. By 1960, the rate of American youth heading off to college had skyrocketed six-fold to 31%

Kent State shooting

Yet this new American ideal of college wasn’t just a numbers racket. In the mid-20th century, the nation had emerged from a Great Depression, two world wars, and the arrival of the atomic bomb.  Thought leaders wondered if the concept of liberal education — geared toward developing critical thinking and not just rote career training — could steer America away from fascism, communism, and nuclear war.

Young Americans in the 1950s and ‘60s embraced this idea. Enrollment in the humanities and social sciences soared. In one 1969 survey of freshmen, 82% said what mattered about college wasn’t career training but “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.”  But for America’s so-called Establishment, the problem was what CIA agents would later label “blowback.”  Young people trained to venerate democracy and employ critical thinking turned their focus to America’s own hypocrisy — its senseless militarism in Vietnam, and racial apartheid in the Deep South, among other issues.

Top officials seemed less worried about the uproar at elite campuses like Columbia and more concerned about radicalism at the massive state universities —Berkeley or New York State’s university at Buffalo — that had exploded with working-class kids taking advantage of low (or free) tuition. They also nervously eyed rising enrollment and protests at HBCUs like Mississippi’s Jackson State University, where cops would murder two Black students on May 15, 1970.

Kent State skyrocketed from 5,000 students in 1954 to 21,000 by 1966, many of them kids of factory workers whose idealism had been forged in the New Deal-era union activism. By 1970, students exhausted by watching their neighbors return from Vietnam in body bags gravitated toward radical groups like Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS. The final trigger was then-President Nixon sending U.S. troops into Cambodia, which led to Kent State protesters burning down the ROTC building, which caused Ohio’s governor to call up the National Guard.

Today, polls show most people who know about the May 4 shooting consider it an abuse of government power, but it didn’t look that way to Middle America in 1970. An instant Gallup Poll showed 58% of Americans blamed the students for the bloodshed, with only 11% blaming the Guard. At a memorial service in Kent, locals disrupted the event chanting “Kent State Four! Should have studied more!”

A new breed of conservative politician was poised to jump on the backlash — including Nixon, who’d called student protesters “bums” just before the shooting.  But the king of the new resentment politics was Ronald Reagan, who’d won a shock victory as California governor in 1966 by railing against chaos on the Berkeley campus and the new hippie “who looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane and smells like Cheetah.”  Reagan pushed (and was met with pushback) to end California’s once-cherished tradition of free public university tuition for residents, arguing that “taxpayers shouldn’t subsidize intellectual curiosity.”

That movement gained steam in 1970, around the time of the Kent State massacre. That year, a Hoover Institution economist who advised both Nixon and Reagan named Roger Freeman said the quiet part out loud when he told the San Francisco Chronicle, “We are in danger of producing an educated proletariat. That’s dynamite! We have to be selective on who we allow to go through higher education.”

An even more influential right-wing economist, the future Nobel laureate James Buchanan, who’d later become a key advisor to the Koch brothers, published Anarchy in Academia that made an explicit link between higher tuition and curbing protest.  He argued that free college in California made students view “the whole university setting with disrespect or even contempt,” as he argued for a privatized, capitalistic reinvention of higher ed.

It didn’t happen overnight, but America’s drift to the political right did ultimately impose this vision. After Reagan was elected president in 1980, he slashed direct federal aid to college students and accelerated the shift to a model based around student loans. Meanwhile, the state legislatures that had spent generously on new dorms in the 1960s now put higher education on the chopping block. In Pennsylvania, taxpayers who paid 75% of the cost of public universities in the late 20th century now pay 25%. That gap is filled in by the state’s working families paying more tuition, which invariably means taking out student loans.

I won’t dwell for long on the impact of killing the idea of higher education as a public good, because you know a lot of this story.  Some 45 million Americans owe an unthinkable $1.75 trillion in debt, forcing today’s young people to put off the markers of adulthood like buying a home or getting married.  Millions more are shut out of college, and any doorway to the middle class, as “deaths of despair” mount among those without degrees.  And remember that idea that critical thinking would keep away fascism?  What about the popularity of QAnon?  What about January 6?  Isn’t that exactly what the 1940s pushers of liberal education wanted to prevent?

As for myself, I don’t think higher education for all is the solution to all our problems.  I don’t think you have to attend college to lear to think critically or even to be well-read.  Nor do I think that college education is, or should be, the only doorway to the middle class.  But I do think Will Bunch is onto something.

We Americans as a nation would be better off if our state university systems offered free or affordable education to all who had the desire and ability to do college work, as they once did.  And if our community colleges offered enrichment, remedial education and vocational training to anyone with the desire to learn.

Will Bunch has written a book, After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics — And How to Fix It, which is coming out in August.


How the Kent State massacre raised your tuition by Will Bunch for the Philadelphia Inquirer.  Hat tip to Steve from Texas.

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5 Responses to “College tuition and the anti-radical backlash”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    But here’s the rub. The way I see it good jobs are going to continue disappearing. AI and other technologies will take them over. What will remain are service jobs where people pay for the privilege of being served by a person.

    Liked by 1 person

    • whungerford Says:

      This is a very narrow definition of service jobs. Outside of farming and manufacturing, most jobs are service jobs–teaching, nursing, and sales are examples. These jobs aren’t necessarily low paid.


  2. whungerford Says:

    We often hear that taxpayers shouldn’t subsidize something that a minority doesn’t like, but taxpayers should and do subsidize many things that are in the public interest — education is one, public health, national parks and flood insurance are also examples. As George Bernard Shaw once noted, “children are now educated and their houses now guarded by the police whether they like it or not, even when they have no children to be educated nor houses to be guarded.”


  3. philebersole Says:

    What is the connection between the cost of higher education, and the AI revolution and technological unemployment?

    The underlying assumption, it seems to me, is that the main or only purpose of higher education is to qualify yourself for a higher-paying job. If those jobs disappear (as in fact they are), only a relatively few people need to be educated to fill them.

    But why does the AI revolution eliminate jobs? Why doesn’t it make it possible for all of us to enjoy more leisure and a better material standard of living?

    It is because the owners of technology (that is to say, physical capital) do not benefit from the masses having more leisure, pleasanter work and higher wages.

    Nor do they benefit from the masses having more knowledge of history, philosophy and the classics of literature. These things might cause them to see alternatives to the status quo.

    As whungerford said, education is a public good, along with public health and national parks. Ideally, we as a nation would be better off if everyone could be as well-educated as they have the desire and ability to be.

    Of course you don’t need to pay college tuition to study the liberal arts, although a college environment certainly helps. A library card, and the companionship and support of fellow students, are sufficient.


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