(Curt Merlo)

This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.

The mother of all problems in higher education today is high tuition at public colleges and universities, which forces students into decades of debt and makes for-profit schools seem like a plausible alternative.

College used to be free at institutions like the University of California and other state schools not that long ago. In 2014, tuition was abolished in, of all places, Tennessee. And in January, Obama asked Congress to fund a plan making two-year community colleges tuition-free. That’s a good start, but we need more. Making four years of college free is not only fair; it’s also politically possible.

The University of California provides an example of the problem. In 2014, in-state tuition and fees for undergrads totaled $13,222 for one year. And UC isn’t even the most expensive public university: in-state tuition for the current school year at Penn State is $18,464. (The cheapest is the University of Wyoming, at $4,646 for one year.) As a result, two-thirds of college seniors now graduate with an average of $29,000 in student-loan debt. Students are told that incurring this debt is justifiable because a college education increases their earning power and boosts their “human capital”—which, they are told, is a financial advantage that goes beyond net worth. As Forbes explained it, student debt will provide “a solid return on your investment.”

That rationale suggests the ubiquity of market logic today. But there’s an alternative way of thinking: education is a public good. The purpose of education is not just to enable people to increase their lifetime incomes; it’s to help them understand the world, to stimulate the imagination and inspire creativity in all fields. A good society provides opportunities for everyone. We need educated people. And we should be willing to pay to educate them.

Why is tuition so high? The original sin of today’s public university systems can be found in the withering-away of state funding. This is a recent phenomenon: in Ronald Reagan’s campaign to become governor of California in 1966, he ran against the university, but he didn’t raise the tuition after he won. When Reagan left office in 1975, UC tuition cost only $647. It skyrocketed after 1990: $2,700 in 2000, $5,400 in 2005, almost $10,000 in 2010. In California, Democrats won a supermajority in the state legislature in 2012, which let them accomplish political tasks once considered impossible (for example, making abortion more accessible), and last year voters turned drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. But there have been no cuts in tuition; the Democrats agreed only to freeze the increases—and now they’ve declared that the freeze is coming to an end. In response, the UC Board of Regents recently voted to increase tuition by 5 percent per year for the next five years. For residents, the tuition would go from $12,192 now to $15,564.

There’s a simple, elegant solution to this travesty: 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. Some preliminary facts: Germany has the fourth-largest economy in the world. 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. If the conservative Christian Democrats in Germany—masters of austerity—can be pressured into eliminating tuition, why can’t the same thing happen with the Democrats in the United States, especially in places like California, Illinois and New York?

The US government already spends lots of money on student aid. Federal spending in 2014, the College Board reports, includes $47 billion in grants, $101 billion in loans and $20 billion in tax credits. “With that kind of dough,” says Anya Kamenetz of NPR, “there ought to be ways of buying better access and more equity.” One prominent proposal, from the Campaign for Free College Tuition, calls for offering a full college scholarship to every academically qualified student whose family makes less than $160,000 a year ($160,000 because even the middle class has gone into debt paying for college). Instead of federal Pell Grants and tuition tax credits, we’d create an entitlement: all young people who qualify for college can go for free.

Obama’s plan doesn’t go that far: he proposes that the federal government pay three-quarters of the cost of tuition for two-year public community colleges, and that states pay the rest. Students would have to be enrolled at least half-time, maintain a C-plus average, and “make steady progress toward completing a program.” If all fifty states agreed to fund the program, it could cover 9 million students and save each one about $3,800 a year. Republicans, of course, are not going to fund such an initiative, leading one GOP spokesman to label Obama’s proposal “more of a talking point than a plan.”

A little arithmetic suggests that the proposal would cost the federal government something like $25 billion a year, while the states would have to come up with another $6 billion. Republicans and Democrats alike say we can’t afford it. But they stopped saying that in Tennessee in 2014: there, the legislature voted to make tuition and fees free for two years for all state high-school graduates who want to go to a community college or technical school. (Tuition there costs $4,000.) The State House of Representatives voted in favor of the bill 87 to 8; the vote in the State Senate was 30 to 1. And in case you were wondering, the Tennessee House has fifty-eight Republicans and twelve Democrats, while the Senate has twenty-seven Republicans and eight Democrats. The plan, available to students graduating from high school this year, has attracted almost 90 percent of the state’s seniors—more than twice as many as expected. There’s one other striking fact: in Tennessee, free tuition didn’t come after massive student protests; it was a Republican idea, touted as a “pragmatic” program, part of a “strategy that worked.”

If Tennessee can afford free tuition, so can everybody else. But how did Tennessee do it? Republican Governor Bill Haslam began by arguing that Tennessee needed more educated people, and set a goal of increasing the number of residents who hold a college degree from 33 percent today to 55 percent by 2025. The state will pay for it by creating a self-sustaining endowment of $300 million. Most of the money comes from a lottery fund, and the state legislature also voted to contribute $47 million.

Tennessee is not alone. A similar proposal in Oregon will be voted on when the new legislature is seated in 2015. Chicago also recently announced a free tuition program so that the city’s high-school students could attend two-year colleges, but Mayor Rahm Emanuel set so many prerequisites that only 3,000 of the city’s 20,000 high-school graduates qualify. Tennessee, in contrast, has no prerequisites: all high-school graduates are eligible (but they must enroll full-time and maintain a 2.0 GPA).

Making college free would have one additional benefit: it would drive the for-profit schools out of business. They now enroll 13 percent of those currently attending American colleges, or 2 million students. A Senate Education Committee report in 2012 released by Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin provided “overwhelming documentation of exorbitant tuition, aggressive recruiting practices, abysmal student outcomes, taxpayer dollars spent on marketing and pocketed as profit, and regulatory evasion and manipulation.” For-profit colleges represent predatory capitalism at its worst. Instead of tightening regulations, as Obama has proposed, we could get rid of all for-profit colleges except those that provide real job skills not available at public schools.

Free tuition solves the problem for the future, but even if Obama’s proposal for two-year colleges were funded by the Republicans, that would still leave millions of young people (and their parents) crippled by student debt for decades to come. Student debt in America now famously exceeds credit-card debt, totaling more than $1 trillion. Here, Obama’s efforts have been woefully inadequate: his goal is not to abolish student debt, or even to reduce it, but rather to “make student debt more affordable and manageable to repay.” He has provided some repayment schemes and established a deal to forgive loans after twenty years of payments—at which time the remaining balance will be taxed as income! It gets worse: as author and activist Barbara Garson points out, “thanks to intense bank lobbying starting in the 1970s, student loans are uniquely punitive…. Unlike other loans, student loans can’t be discharged in bankruptcy.” Most can’t even be refinanced, which means that people who borrowed at 8 percent in the 1990s are still paying 8 percent—even though today’s rates are much lower. Senator Elizabeth Warren has introduced legislation to allow refinancing, but even if she got that through Congress, it would still leave debtors paying market rates. And it gets even worse: borrowers who go more than 270 days without making a payment on their federal student loans are deemed “in default,” and the Education Department pays nearly two dozen private debt collectors over $1 billion of taxpayer money annually to pursue the borrowers. Those targeted are subject to wage garnishments and the seizing of government benefits—Social Security can be garnished, and even disability checks.

A modest proposal: use that $1 billion not for debt collection, but for debt relief for student borrowers.

Occupy Wall Street activists have come up with a breathtaking strategy for providing immediate relief to student debtors. In mid-February, an Occupy offshoot called Rolling Jubilee announced that it was abolishing more than $13 million in debt originating from the for-profit Everest College, freeing more than 9,000 former students from that burden. The secret behind Rolling Jubilee is that defaulted debt is often sold for pennies on the dollar to debt collectors, who then try to collect the full amount. Rolling Jubilee declared itself a debt collector and purchased student debt on the open market—after raising money through small individual donations—and then notified the debtors that their debt was abolished. And a group of former students at the failing for-profit Corinthian Colleges, Inc. have declared a debt strike. They are calling themselves the Corinthian 8, and their new organization Debt Collective. It’s the first time people have collectively refused to pay their federal student loans, and their goal, Astra Taylor explains, is “to build people/debtor power to attack the problem at the root.” Rolling Jubilee raises a question posed by Astra Taylor and Hannah Appel at the web publication TomDispatch: “If a ragtag group of activists can find a way to provide immediate relief to even a few thousand defrauded students, why can’t the government?”

Forgiving student debt has impressive popular backing: 1 million people signed a petition in support of the Student Loan Forgiveness Act in 2012, which was introduced by Michigan Democrat Hansen Clarke, with twenty-four co-sponsors. The benefits of student-loan forgiveness would extend well beyond the individuals involved. As Robert Applebaum of StudentDebtCrisis.org and StudentNation (at this magazine) argues, “Forgiving student loan debt would have an immediate stimulating effect on the economy.” Former students freed of debt payments would spend money; jobs would be created, and tax revenues would go up.

Occupy’s Rolling Jubilee, Republicans in Tennessee: you never know where you may find inspiration.