Think free college is a recent idea? It’s right in the University of California’s 1868 charter: “as soon as the income of the University shall permit, admission and tuition shall be free to all residents of the State.”
When California lawmakers created the 1960 Master Plan that would guide the future of the country’s most prestigious public higher education system, residents enrolled at UC were paying just $60 per semester in “incidental fees.”
But beginning in the late 1960s, politicians pushed to increase the amount students contributed to their education. Their stated reasons were both ideological and financial: Ronald Reagan, who as governor prided himself on slashing government spending, said the state should not “subsidize intellectual curiosity.” Later, the dot-com bust in the early aughts prompted tuition increases under both Democratic and Republican administrations.
Undergraduate fees at UC grew at nearly five times the rate of inflation between 1977 and 2018; at the height of the most recent recession, the university raised them by 32% in a single year. California State University tuition has grown by about 900% in the last four decades, adjusted for inflation—and that doesn’t include additional fees imposed by individual campuses.