Click here to help quash the Federal Family Education Loan Program.

“Open the doors to all,” declared City College founder Townsend Harris in 1847. “Let the children of the rich and poor take their seats together and know of no distinction save that of industry, good conduct and intellect.” And indeed, all students attended City College free until 1976. Like the neo-Gothic campus–stunning, as if from the pages of a fairy tale, yet physically decaying from underfunding and neglect–Harris’s vision has taken a beating over the years. Yet it is still alive among City College student activists–and perhaps its time has come again.

At 2 o’clock on a rainy late-April afternoon, City College students were scheduled to walk out of class to protest proposed tuition hikes. Two slender young men stood tentatively in front of the student union, wondering if anyone else was going to show up. They’d seen a poster about the walkout. One of them, Mohammed Ramin, a sophomore, had been laid off from his job at Circuit City a month earlier. He was worried he might lose some of his financial aid. Then, with a tuition hike, he’d be unable to afford to stay in school. His friend Stanley George, also on financial aid, said–in a sentiment being echoed by students all over the country–that even without a tuition increase, “people right now can’t afford to go to school.”

More students slowly gathered in front of the student union, and soon hundreds were chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho! Tuition hikes have got to go!” Ramin and George giggled shyly. But after a few minutes, they were chanting too.

The City College students weren’t alone this spring in taking action against recession-inspired tuition hikes. Students also walked out of class at Hunter and Brooklyn colleges and students rallied at Hostos Community College. And the action wasn’t limited to New York City. About a thousand students at the University of Vermont participated in a similar walkout, as did students throughout the University of California system. In May some schools quieted down for exams, but students at Central Washington University walked out of class. At the University of Illinois, Chicago, students, community members and university workers rallied against tuition hikes and layoffs. The message of these protests is that state budgets should not be balanced at the expense of students. Says Gionni Carr, the governor-appointed student representative to the Tennessee Board of Regents, “They’re treating us like we’re ATMs, not like we’re the future of this nation.”

Even before this recession, the high cost of college in America was a crisis. The federal Pell Grant, the largest source of financial aid for low-income students, covered 76 percent of tuition at public four-year colleges in 1990-91. Today it covers less than half, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Student indebtedness has thus reached an all-time high: two-thirds of students graduate in debt–about $22,000 per student on average, according to the Project on Student Debt. A 2007 survey of college freshmen found that almost 10 percent were not sure they’d have the funds to graduate. The Washington, DC-based United States Students Association projects that in the next decade up to 3.2 million qualified students will pass up the opportunity to go to college because of the expense, which is, of course, not limited to tuition. Carr, now a part-time student at the University of Memphis, recalls, “Some semesters I couldn’t afford to buy all my books.”

College affordability is not just a student issue. It is about what kind of society we are going to have: one of well-educated citizens who are able to grapple with questions about the meaning of life and the existence of God, find cures for cancer, ease climate change and critique the powerful, or one in which ignorance and mediocrity are blandly, even cheerfully accepted. In Default, a movie-in-progress about student debt, a young woman says, “We’re just going to get stupider until there’s a change. We’re just going to get dumber.”

Particularly in urban schools, the protests are inspired not only by the affordability issues but by outrage that the tuition isn’t well spent. At City College, students must contend with broken desks. Plumbing problems are neglected, with predictably foul consequences. At the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), where students managed this year to delay a planned tuition hike through protests, Elissa Selmore, a pre-med senior, points out that in the administration building “everything works nice,” but elsewhere on campus “steps are crumbling, pipes are broken. In my biology lab, there’s a big hole in the wall. We have handicapped students, and the elevators and escalators never work.” Selmore, a 24-year-old single mother who must pay for daycare on top of her other expenses, says, “You can’t ask us to hand over our money and not ask where it’s going and what are the results.”

While there could, in most places, be much closer cooperation between faculty unions and student groups, they do seem to embrace each other’s concerns. “There’s a myth that students only care about cost and faculty only care about pay, job security,” says Ferd Wulkan of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts (PHENOM), a coalition of academic unions (who fund the network) and student groups. “But it’s not true. Faculty care about tuition because they care about their students.” Students, he says, know that faculty issues affect their education. City University of New York’s faculty and staff union, the Professional Staff Congress, has been one of the most vocal champions of affordable tuition. In Tennessee, students have been protesting budget-cutting practices and faculty furloughs (forced time off for professors). At UDC, says Selmore, students are worried about a similar proposal. “Most of my biology professors are [grad students] at the doctorate level,” she says. “Are they the ones who will be downsized?”

Many activists direct their protests toward college administrations, as students often do instinctively: during the walkout at City College, protesters marched to the administration building to demand a meeting with the president. But in New Jersey, students from all over the state rallied at the Capitol against cuts to higher education, in alliance with administrators. This makes sense: their interests are the same.

Private colleges and universities, too, have seen tuition rise as endowments shrink. In May students at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, held a hunger strike to protest large tuition hikes and faculty layoffs; Vassar students used the same dramatic tactic to protest the elimination of a summer jobs program for students in need. But most private campuses have been quiet. At Sarah Lawrence College in bucolic Bronxville, just outside New York City, many students’ parents work in the finance industry and have lost jobs; although the tuition has increased only slightly, some formerly wealthy students are struggling to stay in school. But there have been no protests. In part, the recession inclines people to resignation and a sense that collective sacrifice is inevitable. “I think most of us feel bad for Sarah Lawrence,” says student Maggie Murphy. “We want it to survive.” Students at Sarah Lawrence–which, at $53,000 a year, is the most expensive school in the country–say their costs are so high already that the increases seem small by comparison, and that many who can’t afford it stay away altogether, an analysis echoed by students at other private colleges.

Even at public schools, protesters are frustrated that more students are not joining the cause. Part of the problem may be that organizing tends to focus on the tuition hikes–which don’t immediately affect everyone–rather than broader issues of access. Activists at City College and UDC say many of their friends are indifferent to the tuition increase because they receive so much financial aid that they are insulated from those costs. “It is kind of disappointing that there are not more minority students here,” says Fayola Powell, a quiet, bookish-looking City College junior (who is black), as she gestures toward the lounge of the Guillermo Morales/Assata Shakur Community and Student Center, where an organizing meeting is taking place. “If people get financial aid, they come here free. So they are just not worried about it.” In reality, however, at many schools the prevalence of financial aid artificially inflates tuition, undermining the aid sources in the long run. And in the short run, the financial aid programs also create the illusion that middle-class and low-income students have divergent interests.

Another obstacle activists face is America’s widespread shame over money. Although a college degree is increasingly needed in order to land a job better than one at, say, Home Depot, people regard the high tuition and consequent debt as an individual problem: “We knew what we were getting into, coming here,” says one Sarah Lawrence student. Even at City College, a young woman points out at the organizing meeting that students are defensive about their economic status: “People feel the need to say, ‘This isn’t me; it doesn’t affect me.'”

Though tuition increases usually result from shortfalls in state budgets, the problem of college affordability demands national solutions. After all, it’s easy to see why, to administrators, a tuition hike often seems like the only reasonable way to fill a hole in the budget; only the federal government can make the large-scale investment of resources needed to avert such measures. The United States Students Association lobbied throughout the spring for more financial aid, and it was successful: on April 29 Congress passed a budget that increased aid, along with modest reforms of the student loan system, ending some of the costly subsidies to private student loan companies. Student advocates will be lobbying throughout the summer for President Obama’s proposal to increase Pell Grants substantially so students won’t graduate with so much burdensome debt.

Not surprisingly, European political imaginations, nourished by decades of social democracy, run a little wilder. In Germany, where higher education used to be free and tuition has existed only for a few years, Bavarian students responded to increases by taking to the streets and demanding the abolition of tuition. In Zagreb, students occupied a building for five weeks in response to tuition hikes, demanding “free education from primary school to doctorate.”

Even here, neoliberalism hasn’t completely foreclosed discussion of socialized higher education. Not many politicians want to go there yet–although John Edwards did, during the last Democratic primary. But if a movement demanded it, who knows what might happen? Why not demand that higher education be free? Why not take the meritocratic promise of this country at face value and try to make it real? A few groups are agitating for small reforms in the context of this far-longer-term goal. City College activists constantly remind their fellow students that the school used to be free. PHENOM, the Massachusetts coalition, “takes on short-term issues, pennies more for financial aid”–“win a little, lose a little,” as staff organizer Wulkan puts it. But PHENOM also published a paper advocating that community colleges be free and has been holding public events to discuss this demand. The group has even started talking to legislators about it. “They are receptive,” says Wulkan. “Though, of course they say, Not this year.”

There are excellent practical reasons to make college free, beginning with the Keynesian. “From the standpoint of stimulating the economy, it’s a no-brainer,” says Adolph Reed Jr., University of Pennsylvania political science professor and organizer of the Free Higher Ed! campaign, originated by the Debs-Jones-Douglass Institute, a think tank associated with the Labor Party. “It puts [government] money into play and creates jobs by expanding the number of people who will go to college.” More important, Reed says, “education is a social right, like healthcare.” (This is a premise Americans accept when it comes to younger kids: people had to fight for free high school in the early twentieth century, but we now take it for granted, and we would find the suggestion that only rich children deserve an education morally repellent.) To Reed, it’s uncivilized that we don’t have free higher education already. “To oppose it is to embrace a conviction that not everyone should be able to pursue an education, that it should be rationed by cost.” In any case, he argues, the “cost is so laughably low”: about $80 billion to make all public institutions free, much less than the recent bank bailouts.

This sort of vision–combined with demands that may sound more “reasonable” and be easier to achieve quickly–attracts young people to a movement. Asked what drew him to organize for the City College walkout, Jason King recalls coming to a meeting in the Morales/Shakur center–controversially named for two City College radicals accused of involvement in political violence in the 1970s. “I saw mad revolutionary type of shit,” King says, pointing to the banners celebrating rebels around the globe. “I’m in a very Renaissance stage of life,” he muses, “trying to figure out how the world works. Learning about this tuition increase, I realize I’ve been very naïve.”

For those not inclined to revolutionary flourish or philosophical exploration–although, of course, these in themselves are arguments for a college education–there’s always the democratic idealism of a Townsend Harris. Or the equally old-school American Dream. As student rep Gionni Carr puts it: “We are just trying to better ourselves.” Whatever the rhetoric, it’s about time we educated everyone.

Obama’s proposed reforms are a long way from this ideal, but they reflect a widespread hunger for affordable education. While no movement has yet emerged to force the president to be a real visionary, it’s not too bold to hope that his election signals a more thoughtful turn in American politics. Obama seems to embody, especially in contrast with his predecessor, the virtues of a great education. It is, then, a promising moment to make a case for higher learning and for universal opportunity. Says Wulkan, “There’s been a slight change in everyone’s understanding of the world.” That’s not a bad place to start.