As college tuition keeps increasing, publications occasionally put out pieces about how to get free public college. It often looks like a progressive pipe dream but as many journalists, myself included, often argue, it’s entirely affordable and would help this country greatly.

The Nation, in its latest 150th anniversary edition, has an article about how to do this: just look at other countries:

Tuition at public colleges should be free. You may say that’s impossible, but, as noted, it was free in California and other states just fifty years ago. You may say that was then, this is now. But college is free now in Sweden, Denmark and Finland, while in France, public universities are free for students from lower-income families, and those from higher-income families pay about $200 a year. You may say none of these countries provide a good model for the United States, and that once tuition goes up, it never comes back down. But what about Germany? It introduced tuition eight years ago, but over the last eight years, every state in Germany has abolished it.

How they did it provides a model for the United States, and it can be summed up in three words: protest and politics.


The way it worked provides a useful example:

Public higher education there is controlled and funded by sixteen autonomous state governments rather than the federal government. Following the American example, those state governments imposed tuition starting in 2005. But German citizens organized the Alliance Against Tuition Fees, which included not just student unions but trade unions and political parties. Students marched in the streets all over the country after the first seven states introduced fees. In Hamburg, they organized a fee strike; in the state of Hesse, which includes Frankfurt, they occupied the universities, and 70,000 people signed a petition in support. The Christian Democratic government in Hesse, facing an election in 2008, reversed course and promised to eliminate tuition. “Those state governments that followed Hesse’s lead in abolishing fees stayed in power,” Times Higher Education reported; “those that refused were removed from office at the next election.” Even in conservative Bavaria, 1.35 million voters—15 percent of the electorate—signed a petition opposing tuition, causing the state government to relent.

As a think piece it’s decidedly unlikely to result in actual policy. But let’s look at the major point here. We will probably not get free state college tuition. But if we want it, or even if what we want it just cheaper tuition, we will not get it through reasoned debates and policy proposals by presidential candidates or something. No, if we get this, if we want to get even anything close to this, students have to demand it.

And they can. Students like to protest things. They have protests about universities investing their endowments in Israel or fossil fuels. They have protests about graduation speakers and the treatment of transgender people. They’re perfectly willing to protest tuition hikes. But this is not good enough.

Protests rarely result in acquiesce from those students are protesting. It results in compromise. The university proposes raising tuition 10 percent. Students protest and demand no tuition increase. The university compromises and next year they charge three percent more.

Students need to make big demands here; it’s their financial future that’s at stake. They have their whole professional lives to be reasonable, settle for half a loaf, and make responsible decisions for the sake of their careers and lifestyles. College is the time to be radical.

We will not get free college because some responsible statesmen will decide it’s the best thing for America. No, we’ll get it only if students force it on the country.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer