There seems, at times, to be no shortage of perceived obstructions to reaching the goal of universal free public-university education in America. From my perspective, among the most difficult obstructions to confront is covert opinion that higher education primarily serves a private, not a public, purpose. From this private-interest notion flows the argument, and the public policy to enforce it, that since the ultimate beneficiary of education is the student the student should bear its cost through increased and increasingly burdensome tuition.
We’ve seen this movie before. In fact, this same private-interest argument was used nearly 150 years ago in a lawsuit to prohibit a Michigan community from using local tax dollars to support a public high school. And, in fact, it was the rejection of this private-interest argument that became the basis of one of the most significant legal decisions in the history of American education.
The year was 1874, and the decision authorizing for the first time a community, Kalamazoo, to tax itself in support of its public high school was authored by the learned hand of Michigan Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cooley. An historical marker sponsored by the Michigan State Bar Association and installed in 2016 near the site of the original high school describes the promise of the Cooley decision as having “changed the landscape of public education in Michigan and (it) served as a landmark for education reform across the United States.”
Today, the genetic imprint of the Cooley Decision can be seen in, what is known as, the Kalamazoo Promise – a dramatic program that is helping transform again the way we think about the true beneficiary of higher-level education. This Kalamazoo Promise, funded by local philanthropists, pays the higher education tuition for all graduates of the community’s high schools. And as predicted, this promise is providing tangible public benefits including higher property values as well as a cadre of young people more capable of making the transition from an industrial-age economy to the knowledge-based, information-age economy of today.
As with the original Kalamazoo promise – the Cooley Decision – today’s free university-tuition Kalamazoo Promise is stimulating attempts at replication at locations across the country. And my guess is that as more and more communities acknowledge the public benefits of a more highly educated generation, local leaders and their constituents will begin to apply political moving toward the complete elimination of tuition at all public colleges and universities. I believe this reality is as much a reflection of the promises of Kalamazoo and the community’s historical commitment to education as it is to the outstanding work of the Campagn for Free College Tuition.
Richard Cole is a retired health care executive with five decades of experience as a government staffer and administrator, a non-profit health care and hospital executive and a retired chair and former professor in a research university college of communication arts and science. He was a charter board member and president of the Michigan Education Trust, America’s first pre-paid college tuition program.
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