Public universities are a staple of our educational options in the U.S., but how did they come to be? Public universities are not specific to the U.S. In fact, many countries have a much richer history with higher public education. Some countries fully rely on public universities to educate their citizens for free and have well-developed programs to make this happen. For example, beginning in 970 A.D. Egypt had a public university where tuition and fees were paid for by the government. Public universities are free of charge and treated with great respect in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, etc.
The U.S., unfortunately, cannot be added to this list. The average tuition cost for a year of public university in the U.S. is just shy of $23,000 (U.S. News Report). Comparing $23,000 per year to a free college education begs the question – why is a public education in the U.S. so much more expensive? It has everything to do with the past and present culture of the U.S.
When we look at the oldest universities in the U.S. they are all private. The first university established in the U.S. was Harvard University (a private college) in 1636. The first public college wasn’t up and running until about 160 years after that, in 1795. The timeline isn’t as simple as that seeing as the University of Georgia received the first charter in 1785 but didn’t have students until the 1800s as opposed to the University of North Carolina which received its charter later but was admitting students by 1795. Regardless, these two colleges tend to be considered the first public universities, and neither was admitting students until 160 years after the first private college. Let’s contrast this with the first university established in Finland, for example. The first university established in Finland, The University of Helsinki, was a public university then and continues to be a public university free of charge. Affordable, public universities are written into the bones of many countries’ educational systems – the opposite is true in the U.S. Part of the reason for this is, when the first universities were being established in the 1600s and early 1700s, the government was not yet established to the point where it could charter full universities. Universities had to be privately funded in order to function. On top of that, it was much easier for private universities to keep their racist and sexist practices at the time. There is speculation that this is part of the reason private universities were so generally popular. This set a precedent that, I believe, still affects our universities today.
This doesn’t fully answer the question though; plenty of other countries have free tuition, it can’t be fully dependent on the earliest institutions. The U.S. government tends to be afraid of anything that can be marketed as socialism – free public universities fall under that category. There is also an emphasis on military spending in the U.S, especially post WW2, which cuts into the money that could otherwise be spent to decrease prices of public education. Even though public schools are funded by the government and should, theoretically, be more accessible for those seeking a cheap education, their complicated history means this isn’t always true.