Letters to the Editor: ‘Free college’ once worked for California. It can work again for all

A pedestrian walks near the humanities building on the UCLA campus in Westwood .
(Los Angeles Times)

To the editor: Alexander Astin says that our current system of financing higher education was the result of an idea started in the 1970s that “every able student should be able to afford college.” However, well before then, California had accepted and financed the idea that anyone in the state who worked hard enough could earn a degree almost free of charge.

I graduated from the University of California system in 1968. There was no tuition, and aid was available for those who needed it to cover other expenses such as books, room and board. The fee to cover non-instructional expenses, first charged in 1921, was $84 per year. Today, UC charges more than $12,000 in tuition and fees.

What changed in the early 1970s in California was not that people started thinking all students should be able to afford college — that was the old idea. The new idea was that every student should pay tuition.


Astin asserts that it would be a mistake to judge the effectiveness of tuition-free education “on the basis of a simplistic label like ‘progressive.’” I agree. It should be judged by whether it worked when we had a real commitment to higher education.

John Hamilton Scott, Sherman Oaks


To the editor: I agree with Astin that replacing the current federal student loan program with grant programs would be better than switching to “free college for all.”

However, an even better approach would be to replace current federal loan programs with an “income contingent” loan provided by the federal government, as President Clinton proposed in the early 1990s. Such an income-contingent plan would establish a national trust fund from which any student could borrow; students would repay these loans by contributing a fixed proportion of their subsequent income for a specified number of years.

Borrowers who earn low future incomes would pay back far less than they borrowed, but this would be offset by those who earn high future incomes and who would pay back far more. Another advantage of an income-contingent loan program is that it would view a student’s ability to pay in a forward-looking fashion.

This approach has actually been in use for quite some time in several countries, including Australia, and is being used on an experimental basis by some states (Oregon) and even some colleges (Purdue University).


Robert Moore, San Marino

The writer is a professor emeritus of economics at Occidental College.


To the editor: The only fallacy about college financing that was revealed in Astin’s op-ed article was the idea that “just tweaking the system” would provide the country the skilled workforce it needs in today’s economy.

Astin says the current aid system “has failed to keep pace with ever-rising college costs,” but the burden hasn’t fallen on colleges, but on students and their families, who are now paying almost half of the money colleges charge for tuition. His solution, which is to turn student loans into grants or giveaways, would do nothing to encourage more students to enroll.

Meanwhile, free college tuition programs in more than a dozen states have proved that such programs generate increased enrollment, particularly among minorities and women, and improved graduation rates. The system needs wholesale changes, not a few tweaks.

Morley Winograd, Arcadia


The writer is president and chief executive of the Campaign for Free College Tuition.