Thomas Adam, University of Texas at Arlington – From Public Good to Personal Pursuit

A college education used to be free.

Thomas Adam, professor of transnational history at the University of Texas at Arlington, details the reasons why this changed.

Thomas Adam is professor of transnational history at the University of Texas at Arlington. His research and teaching focusses on topics such as philanthropy, higher education, and holiday rituals such as Christmas. Adam is the editor of the Yearbook of Transnational History which is published with Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. He is currently finishing a book on the history of college affordability, which will be published with Lexington Books.

From Public Good to Personal Pursuit


The 1920s saw a sea change in the ways in which college education was to be paid for. In the nineteenth century college students did not pay tuition. State universities were founded with the mandate of providing education free of charge. And while private colleges provided education at a fee, tuition was often absorbed by scholarships. Private colleges were, after all, founded as charitable institutions, with the expectation that they would be maintained by contributions from donors. The provision of tuition-free education for students was based upon the expectation that students upon graduation would become minsters and teachers who served the needs of their communities. A college degree was, thus, considered a public good that was paid for by the community.

This changed in the 1920s for two major reasons. First, colleges trained no longer just ministers and teachers, but also engineers, lawyers, and medical doctors who stood to enter well-paying careers upon graduation. Second, more and more college students came from rich families. These students attended college not for its educational benefits but for enjoying the social live of a college student. Therefore, college administrators advocated that students who came from rich families and who were expected to make good money after graduation should pay for their college education. Students were expected to pay tuition that covered the full cost of their education. And to pay the tuition, students were to take out student loans. College education turned from a public good to a personal pursuit.


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