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The empty William E. Moran Commons and Plaza at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in August 2020, before the beginning of the fall semester

The End of the University

The pandemic should force America to remake higher education.

The empty William E. Moran Commons and Plaza at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in August 2020, before the beginning of the fall semester

Since coming down south to be closer to family, I’ve taken many walks around the University of North Carolina’s Greensboro campus, where my father works as a professor of chemistry. I arrived not long before spring classes were moved online and the vast majority of students decamped for home. The spacious campus turned desolate, bicycles locked up everywhere, as though the people who rode them to class had vaporized. For months, little changed, with the exception of a large boulder that sits near the main green and serves as a kind of community billboard. When I first arrived, the message spray-painted on it was hopeful: WASH YOUR HANDS SO WE CAN GRADUATE, the artist implored. In a matter of weeks, it grew resigned: COVID-19, the rock read, CLASS OF 2020. By early June, it was rebellious: GEORGE, BREONNA, AHMAUD, BLACK LIVES MATTER.

What is going to happen to universities moving forward? And to their students, faculty, and staff—not to mention the surrounding communities and businesses that depend on campus life to stay afloat? No one knows, but everyone agrees the situation is dire. Some state systems have forecast losses of up to a billion dollars by the end of the year. The virus has sparked a national conversation about the value of education; scrambling to adapt to online teaching often creates more work for faculty with less payoff for students, who are isolated from their teachers and peers. Across the country, including at the University of North Carolina, students have filed suits to get tuition refunds, on the grounds that they were denied the “true college experience,” and signed petitions demanding that their housing costs be reimbursed. In March, Moody’s downgraded the sector’s outlook from stable to negative, citing the prospect of reduced enrollment. With universities and colleges in desperate need of funds far in excess of the $14 billion in federal stimulus money allotted by the CARES Act, Covid-19 may well be what some have called an “extinction-level event” for higher education. Schools often run deficits in normal times; in 2019, nearly 1,000 private colleges were already borderline insolvent. Covid will cause many to shutter for good. It is accounting, not epidemiology, that drives university administrators to push for a rapid return to business as usual, effectively demanding that faculty and staff sacrifice their lives for the financial health of their employer. In August, UNC officials brazenly invited students to move back into their dorms for fall semester. Before long, the system’s flagship school, UNC Chapel Hill, experienced multiple outbreak clusters, and pivoted to remote instruction. I, for one, encouraged my father to resist the pressure to return to the classroom in the fall on a rushed and reckless time line.

Messages spray-painted on the so-called RAWK at UNCG are traditionally left up for 24 hours, but, according to students, the commemorations of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery remained for at least a month.

Walking around the ghostly Greensboro campus this summer, I felt as if I’d arrived in the future that highly paid tech pundits have long claimed was inevitable—a dystopia where instruction takes place solely online and traditional college is obsolete. The people invested in digital disruption are not alone in their push to end higher education as we know it. North Carolina may have been the first state to establish a functioning public university back in 1795, but Republican legislators—so keen on Southern heritage when a Confederate monument is at stake—have been working for years to dismantle the state’s educational legacy, slashing appropriations while targeting specific academic initiatives (including an anti-poverty law program and one focused on biodiversity). Convinced colleges are hotbeds of liberal political correctness, they are eager to see lecture halls, libraries, and laboratories close for good.

Democrats, too, facilitated higher education’s evisceration; they bear substantial responsibility for public institutions being so uniquely, and unnecessarily, vulnerable to the pandemic’s fiscal shock. For decades, disinvestment in higher education has been a bipartisan undertaking. Looming state budget deficits and austerity policies will ensure that even more schools are public in name alone. Cuts, unfortunately, tend to stick: After the 2008 crash, state funding for higher education never rebounded. Even before Covid, state higher-ed spending, on average, was down around 17 percent per student, adjusted for inflation, from prerecession levels. Meanwhile, the market-friendly fixes adopted over the years to make up for declining state revenue—a growing dependence on tuition dollars and proceeds from real estate holdings, athletics, and hospitals—have recently been exposed as massive liabilities, as vacant dormitories, stadiums, and surgery wards collect not income but dust. Donors, who in good times might be inclined to give generously to an endowment in exchange for a tax break and a plaque, may prefer now to tighten their belts.

Of course, those schools that aren’t rich enough to have medical complexes and endowments will be hardest hit by the coming crunch. In the most likely scenario, the comparatively privileged will compete ever more frantically for space in academia’s upper echelons, while millions of poor and working-class students, disproportionately Black and brown, are funneled into dilapidated community colleges and for-profit degree mills or give up on studying altogether. Harvard and Yale will not just survive this calamity, they will likely see their stock rise; Princeton’s $26 billion endowment generates about $158,000 in annual revenue for each of its approximately 8,200 students. In contrast, the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities, which lack comparable cash reserves, will be especially harmed by closures.

Before UNC students were called back for an uncertain and perilous fall semester, I often felt sentimental. Crossing the abandoned quad or passing the lonely statue of Minerva, I missed the usual hustle and bustle and wistfully regarded the signs of devotion to scholarship and learning. And yet, as someone who has spent the last eight years campaigning to end student debt and advance the demand for tuition-free, and intellectually freeing, public college for all, I know the university must not be romanticized. The question is not whether the university as it currently exists will survive the pandemic, but whether we want it to.

The coronavirus pandemic did not cause the current crisis like an unexpected blow to an otherwise healthy patient; it has exposed and exacerbated an array of preexisting conditions, revealing structural inequalities that go back not just decades but centuries. Capitalist imperatives and racial exclusions have distorted and damaged our education system since its inception. America’s universities were built on a corrupt foundation: The theft of indigenous territory and the owning and leasing of enslaved people provided much of the initial acreage, labor, and capital for many of the country’s most esteemed institutions. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862, the year before the Emancipation Proclamation, handing over millions of acres of stolen land to found universities that shut out Black people, with few exceptions. The Morrill Act was part of a concerted effort to modernize the economy. Indeed, the research university and the business corporation developed in tandem. Racism, commerce, and education have been bedfellows from the beginning. If we want a real cure for the present crisis, we must change how our institutions of learning are funded and governed, so that they might embody a deeper, democratic purpose at long last.

The coronavirus pandemic may well usher in a period of catastrophic destruction, but difficult revelations can also be a spur to insight and action. Though increasingly stratified, segregated, and costly access to higher education is not the only possible future we are racing toward, it is the default—the destination that aligns with our past and present trajectories. In order to forge another path, we must engage in a deeper form of accounting. Beyond finding a way to balance university budgets in the midst of global depression, the challenge is to acknowledge and repair past mistakes and ongoing inequities, thereby making our higher education system, for the first time in our troubled history, truly public. If our goal is to shift course and avert the disaster on the horizon, the boulder’s final message—“Black Lives Matter”—points us in the right direction. “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression,” the Combahee River Collective, an influential group of Black feminists, wrote in 1977. Their wisdom still holds. If we could create a world where Black students were free to learn at free universities, we would have created a world where everyone else was finally able to do so as well.

Six years ago, I co-founded the Debt Collective, a union for debtors that fights for student debt cancellation and free education. We launched the country’s first student debt strike, helping to win more than a billion dollars of debt relief for tens of thousands of people who had attended predatory for-profit colleges. In early February, when Covid-19 was still a distant concern and Bernie Sanders seemed to have a chance of winning the nomination, the Debt Collective began organizing a scaled-up student debt strike, expanding the focus beyond for-profit borrowers. We pointed to research showing that canceling all $1.7 trillion of student debt would provide an economic stimulus of up to $108 billion a year, freeing money currently sent to loan servicers to be spent on other things, and helping to close the racial wealth gap. As part of the campaign’s rollout, I convened a discussion in Los Angeles about the future of higher education, featuring student debt strikers, organizers, and academics. Hosted in collaboration with Onassis LA, a center for art and dialogue, the encounter was designed to reflect more deeply on the Debt Collective’s demands and tactics. What does “free public college” really mean? How could we best advance our agenda?

I began by inviting student debtors to tell their stories. Pamela Hunt, a student debt striker and single mother who went to a for-profit college, took the floor first. “I made my situation worse off going to college,” she said. “The reason I did it was to take care of my family and then it ended up where I really wasn’t able to take care of them the way that I wanted to after all.” Nathan Hornes, another Debt Collective member, recounted being told to play Monopoly for a class midterm. Neither Hunt nor Hornes, who are both Black and working class, felt they could afford the luxury of studying for studying’s sake—a pragmatism for-profits take advantage of, charging sky-high tuition for subprime vocational programs. Sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom estimates that in 2008 there were more low-income Black and Hispanic women enrolled in for-profit than in four-year public and private nonprofit colleges combined. As the economy craters once again, for-profits, with their false promises of economic advancement and online course offerings, are anticipating another enrollment surge.

That afternoon, the racial and class-bound dimensions of student debt were immediately apparent. Millions of white people are also drowning in student debt—I know because I was once one of them—but our Black counterparts are weighted down more heavily. “It’s really important, especially when we talk about building a movement, that we talk about commonality and common ground and that white working-class folks are dealing with some of the same challenges that people of color are,” Barbara Ransby, a historian of the civil rights era, observed during the conversation. “But racism and white supremacy do add another layer to it all. It’s structural abandonment of communities. It’s the precarity of life. It’s racial profiling. Just getting on and off of predominantly white campuses is a navigation art.”

Statistics bear witness to this imbalance. Before Covid wrecked the economy, the median wealth of white families was nearly 12 times more than median Black families; the typical Black household headed by someone with an advanced degree possessed less wealth than a white household headed by someone with a high school diploma. The lack of family wealth makes borrowing more necessary, while workplace discrimination and wage disparities (and the fact that Black borrowers are more likely to be supporting older relatives) make repayment more challenging. A 2016 study found that Black people graduate with about $7,400 more in student debt than their white counterparts; four years after finishing school, that gap increased to $25,000. A 2019 study reported that 20 years after starting college, the typical white student owes 6 percent of their cumulative debt, or around $1,000, while the typical Black borrower still owes 95 percent, or around $18,500. As fees and interest accrue over years and decades, Black borrowers, and Black women in particular, end up paying significantly more for the same degrees than white borrowers do.

And they get less in return. At around 40 of the country’s top colleges, more students are now admitted from the top 1 percent of the income ladder than the bottom 60 percent; roughly two-thirds of students at the most selective colleges come from the country’s top income quintile, while only 4 percent come from the bottom one. The richest students go to the richest schools, which inevitably spend the most money per student, advantage begetting advantage. Administrators are incentivized to attract wealthier recruits—“poorer students have lower average test scores and post-graduation incomes, which bring down schools’ rankings in US News and World Report,” as one recent article in The New York Review of Books explained—with the pandemic guaranteed to make their pursuit more frantic. “Rather than education leading to wealth, it is wealth that facilitates the acquisition of an expensive education,” economists Darrick Hamilton and Trevon Logan have written. That investment then pays dividends over a lifetime.

Advertised as the great equalizer, college today has increasingly polarizing effects. While coddled upper-class children enroll at elite institutions on their parents’ dime—and, in critical ways, on the public’s, since private colleges receive an array of state subsidies, including tax breaks—the majority of students struggle mightily to have a chance to learn. Forty percent of students who enroll don’t manage to graduate in six years, but the debt lingers on even if they don’t get a diploma. It’s not easy to finish a two- or four-year degree while homeless or housing insecure, as around 40 percent of students were this spring—and that was before what will likely be a historic wave of Covid-related evictions and foreclosures.

As educational access has increased across the population, so too has economic inequality. The current system reflects and reinforces deeply entrenched disparities, strengthening the position of the already privileged. While color-blind in theory, in practice American higher education is a costly and convoluted system of affirmative action for affluent white people.

In a classroom at the Joseph M. Bryan School of Business and Economics at UNCG, seats are blocked off with caution tape to create distance between students.

We will not be able to remedy the crisis of higher education without coming to grips with the role racism has played in fueling it. Today, the average cost of attending a four-year private college is roughly $200,000, an astonishing sum given that, a few generations ago, college often cost nothing or very little. But it was mainly white men who benefited. “When the UC system was a lot whiter, it was basically free,” Dylan Rodríguez, who teaches ethnic studies at UC Riverside, said during the Onassis LA discussion. As the student body became “Blacker, browner, more working class,” a racist backlash pushed the state to defund education at all levels, forcing the most socioeconomically vulnerable people to pay out of pocket to attend ostensibly public institutions.

The person most responsible for this shift was Ronald Reagan, though it took decades for his revanchist policies to fully take root. When people tell the story of student debt and skyrocketing tuition, they typically begin in Berkeley, where students rose up against McCarthyism and the Vietnam War. Reagan propelled himself to the governor’s mansion by attacking the protesters and vowing to “clean up that mess” on campus. In 1966, the newly elected governor proposed that, for the first time, the UC system charge tuition. Doing so would “get rid of undesirables,” he said. “Those there to agitate and not to study might think twice before they pay tuition—they might think twice how much they want to pay to carry a picket sign.” The state, he announced in a speech the following year, should not be “subsidizing intellectual curiosity.”

As the sociologist Melinda Cooper argues in her insightful book Family Values, free public education—along with rising wages—meant that a generation of students were able to go to college without relying on their parents. Cooper sees the imposition of tuition and student debt as part of a concerted attempt to undermine this freedom and to reinstate what she calls “family responsibility.” Privatization, in Cooper’s account, has a double meaning: It signifies both state disinvestment in favor of market-friendly policies and a shift of responsibility from the public to the private sphere. (To burden families alone with their children’s fate is to put those families that lack inherited wealth because of centuries of racial oppression at an overwhelming disadvantage.) Reactionary figures promoted student debt as a means to suppress social movements and discipline individuals. In their 1970 book, Academia in Anarchy, neoliberal economists James M. Buchanan and Nicos E. Devletoglou argued that students should have to pay for their education so they would cease treating college as a “psychedelic game.” Samuel Huntington warned in 1975 that the democratization of higher education was fueling a “general challenge to existing systems of authority, public and private.”

Racial anxiety was, of course, also in play, even when it was not explicitly stated. (“People no longer felt the same compulsion to obey those whom they had previously considered superior to themselves in age, rank, status, expertise, character, or talents,” Huntington lamented; attuned readers could hear the dog whistle.) As historian Donna Murch demonstrates in her book Living for the City, the composition, and complexion, of California’s student body were swiftly changing during Reagan’s ascension. Until 1966, fewer than 100 Black students out of 20,000 are estimated to have attended Berkeley, but Black youth at the time were seeking educational opportunities in droves, flocking especially to junior colleges with the same determination that drove their parents to migrate from the South. By 1969, the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles had the highest rate of Black college attendance in the country, with the Bay Area leading nationally in college completion. Hubs of study and debate, junior colleges became incubators of Bay Area Black radicalism.

In 1960, California’s celebrated “Master Plan” committed to making postsecondary education available to every high school graduate at public expense; state policymakers saw higher education as crucial to Cold War economic development and national security. “In California in the ’50s and ’60s, people felt that they had a right to higher education,” Murch told me. “The liberal state makes education free, and, by doing that, it actually produces a movement that fights the liberal state.” Students took bold stances against racism, imperialism, and capitalism. Fifteen minutes away from Berkeley, Oakland’s Merritt College nurtured the development of figures such as Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, who went on to found the Black Panther Party. They began their activist careers demanding a Black studies curriculum and Black instructors. College, they argued, should reflect the community being served. Reagan, then, wasn’t wrong to see a connection between free education and political dissent—he was wrong to want to suppress it.

Today, first-generation Black college students like those who once gathered on the Merritt campus are at risk of being funneled into predatory for-profit colleges, which spend hundreds of millions advertising to prospective students, rather than community colleges perpetually starved for funds. The right wing’s attacks on higher education—and its promotion of rapacious, privatized alternatives—have to be understood as a conscious attempt to quell the kind of militant intellectualism that rocked the Bay Area 50-odd years ago. The attacks were also a way to achieve resegregation by other means—by denying state support and upward mobility to an increasingly nonwhite public. A combination of anti-radicalism, racism, recessionary pressure, and right-wing anti-tax revolts emboldened Reagan’s ravaging of the welfare state and simultaneous bolstering of the prison-industrial complex. Soon, California led the nation not in education but mass incarceration.

One of many ironies of contemporary higher education is the fact millions of students are mortgaging their futures to pay for classes taught by people who may not make minimum wage. Nearly a quarter of adjunct university faculty rely on public assistance to survive, and 40 percent have trouble covering basic household expenses, according to a survey this spring performed by the American Federation of Teachers. While administrator salaries have bloated over the years, the percentage of part-time instructors barely scraping by has exploded. Pre-Covid, almost 75 percent of college teachers were nontenure track; of the more than half a million new professors hired to teach the millennial generation, 94 percent were “contingent.” This fall, instead of new jobs, there will be downsizing. The City University of New York (CUNY) offered a taste of what is to come: By July, it fired 2,800 people, most of them adjunct faculty.

Academia has long perpetuated, and profited from, the myth that no real work happens under its auspices—professors’ mental labor is distinguished from menial drudgery, and graduate students are deemed apprentices, not employees. Fortunately, there is a growing movement that rejects this obfuscation and demands the right to be unionized and properly compensated.

Earlier this year, when the Debt Collective was gathered in Los Angeles, graduate students across the University of California system were on a wildcat strike, defying their union and demanding a cost-of-living adjustment. They pointed out that their baseline stipends of just under $22,000 were paltry compared with nearly 600 UC employees who take home over half a million dollars a year, and barely provided enough to pay rent. When we spoke, Sucharita Kanjilal, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology, compared the situation for students who reside on campus to living in a “company town.” Their meager remittances are all but eaten up by housing and insurance payments to the university.

UC Santa Cruz strikers, Kanjilal told me, weren’t only fighting for better pay. They also called for “cops off campus,” a demand that, though initially dismissed as quixotic, proved prescient when protests against police brutality swept the globe a few months later. In Santa Cruz, the university reportedly spent $300,000 a day for additional security, while a public records request revealed that it had also deployed military surveillance equipment to monitor the protests. Meeting the strikers’ demand of an increase of $1,412 per student per month for all 1,800 graduate students would have cost $2.5 million a month—significantly less than paying the cops who beat and arrested strikers for a comparable period. The decision to increase spending on policing, not teaching, raises the perennial question of budget priorities. As Hannah Appel, a co-founder of the Debt Collective and a professor at UCLA, told me, “We have had these problems for a long time. Now the administration can conveniently be like, ‘Oh, Covid, sorry, we’re going to lay you off.’”

If faculty don’t fight back, administrators across the country will seize this disaster to further “restructure” universities in line with corporate management principles. In June, Rutgers University, a public university system made up of 71,000 students and 30,000 workers across three campuses, declared a “fiscal emergency” after spending $50 million to refund students for unused campus services and seeing its state appropriations plummet. Before the emergency was declared, a coalition of unions representing 20,000 workers offered a “work-sharing” proposal that would have saved Rutgers $100 million by using strategic furloughs to prevent any layoffs. The guiding principle is to defend the most vulnerable—in this case, dining and part-time teaching staff. Last year, such a holistic framework helped AAUP-AFT, the faculty and graduate student union, secure higher wages, pay equalization across the three campuses, measures to ensure gender and racial equity, and more—a contract that Donna Murch, who teaches history at the New Brunswick campus, told me was “remarkable.” “Part of our fight is to try to get tenured faculty to identify with people that make less money and have less job security,” Murch explained, and to use their relative privilege to fight for more than their own bread-and-butter concerns.

An aerial view of the Jackson Library at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Administrators dragged their feet and never responded to the work-sharing offer, undermining their claims that the cuts had been triggered only by budget concerns. They also have not been transparent about the university’s $600 million unrestricted reserve fund, which union organizers believe should be used to prevent layoffs. Nor did they demand a significant sacrifice from the university’s football coach, who is in his first year of an eight-year, $32 million contract (he agreed to a 10 percent pay cut for four months). Instead, they fired more than 1,000 people—300 of them adjunct faculty whose dismissals saved $4 million—and continued to write checks to the notorious anti-union law firm Jackson Lewis, which has charged the university $1.6 million over the last two years.

The struggle in New Jersey, as in countless other places, is not really about saving money so much as how to spend it. It is a struggle over power. “Rutgers has about 300 people working in the top administration,” Todd Wolfson, the president of AAUP-AFT, told me. Administrators decide to hire adjuncts and pay them poorly; administrators invest tens of millions of dollars in athletics, not academics; administrators made up the Covid-19 planning committee, relying on a unilateral process when what was really needed was union, student, and community representation to help guide the university through an unprecedented crisis. A democratically governed university is the last thing administrators want to see—but it is the only thing that can ensure the long-term survival and safety of the institution and those who depend on it.

“We see the 30,000 people who are making a life serving this institution, serving the students, maintaining our buildings, serving us lunch, also teaching and doing research, as the people who should be making the decisions about the university,” Wolfson said. He pointed to the absence of a student voice on the board of governors of the university as an example of the problems that stem from a lack of representation. “Not one student has any role in any decision-making, which is why you see tuition hikes.” He advocates the creation of a Rutgers workers’ council, where people run the university collectively. As Murch declared in a piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education: “All of us have a stake in this, and all of us should have a say.”

Before the historic wave of protests for Black lives began, the semester was already overwhelming for 21-year-old Jael Kerandi, a rising senior at the University of Minnesota. “There’s no manual on how to be student body president during the pandemic,” she told me. But when she got wind of George Floyd’s murder a few miles from her campus, she knew exactly what she had to do. In an eloquent and indignant open letter, Kerandi confronted university administrators who claim to have values of diversity, equity, and inclusion and yet hire police, who have a record of murdering Black men and women, to patrol campus. She demanded the school cut off its relationship to the Minneapolis Police Department and gave them 24 hours to respond. “Attending a predominantly white institution, most of my constituents are white,” said Kerandi, who is Black. “But students have been asking for these things for years, and those voices have gone unheard for so long.” Before the deadline was up, the school committed to stop contracting with the police for support during large campus events or specialized services.

Even though colleges as we know them have been shut down, the last few months have been a period of incredible learning. White Americans have been far more supportive of the protests for racial justice than they have of similar actions in the past. Millions have joined marches, and civil disobedience has become commonplace. People are reading and discussing America’s history, the dynamics of racial capitalism, and the possibility of not only prison reform but prison abolition. A reckoning, unimaginable only a short while ago, appears to be under way.

As the educator Jason Wozniak pointed out to me, the Greek word scholé means free time, suspension, contemplation, and delay. School, in this sense, is not so much a place as a circumstance, one with a distinct time frame. It may be that the pandemic shifted people’s collective sense of time in ways that allowed some to face and reflect on truths they might, under normal conditions, continue to avoid—truths about oppression, exploitation, vulnerability, and interdependence. The moment also calls to mind an insight from historian Robin D.G. Kelley: “Social movements generate new knowledge, new theories, new questions. The most radical ideas often grow out of a concrete intellectual engagement with the problems of aggrieved populations confronting systems of oppression.” Learning has never been an activity confined to campus; it often happens in the streets and through struggle. Because of the pandemic, millions of people were able to pay serious and sustained attention to the causes and the stakes of these protests. The university as it is currently constructed validates and cultivates certain kinds of erudition and expertise while discounting other forms of knowledge and experience. The protests for Black lives, the attempts by Rutgers staff to change their working conditions, and the Debt Collective’s ongoing student debt strike are all pedagogical experiments that open space for participants to be thinking, engaged democratic subjects.

Even when they have been shut down, colleges have been implicated in the uprisings. On June 2, the Los Angeles Police Department turned UCLA’s Jackie Robinson Stadium into a field jail, where it detained protesters who were demonstrating past curfew. Hannah Appel is part of a coalition of faculty members who denounced the collaboration. “Universities have turned racial justice into a brand,” she told me. But truly supporting racial justice means doing much more that naming buildings for civil rights icons and then arresting demonstrators in their shadows. A more profound transformation is required.

During the Debt Collective’s dialogue, Barbara Ransby invoked the concept of abolition in the context of education, noting that abolition is a framework that conjures not merely the dismantling of oppressive systems but the creation of social arrangements of solidarity and care. “We know a lot of bad things and bad structures exist,” Ransby said. “We’re not as rehearsed in what to replace them with.” Simply canceling student debt and eliminating tuition are not enough to yield educational equity in a society serrated by inequality. Instead, we need schools that are not only free in cost, but also aimed at widening the sphere of democratic freedom. Appel articulated this clearly when we spoke: “Just because you don’t pay for it doesn’t mean it’s free of white supremacy. It doesn’t mean it’s free of repressive cops or that it is a sanctuary from state violence.” Tuition-free school isn’t enough if only elites can successfully compete for limited spots, or if schools that serve poor and working students remain immiserated and understaffed. That is why Christopher Newfield, one of the foremost chroniclers of the political economy of higher education, argues that advocates must set their sights not just on free public college but on more equitable funding structures. He suggests $20,000 per student per year as a spending floor to guarantee that disadvantaged students have a fair shot at academic success.

If the Covid crisis has revealed anything, it is that we have the money. It is possible to reverse decades of privatization. The pandemic has also revealed that the only democratic and sustainable revenue source for higher education is public funds. (A debate about whether private colleges should exist—they don’t in many countries—is long overdue.) Universities may be subject to austerity at the state level, but the federal government recently made trillions of dollars appear out of thin air. “There is scarcity,” economist Stephanie Kelton, who has worked on College for All legislation, explained at the Debt Collective’s gathering in Los Angeles. But this scarcity is material, not monetary. “The one thing that the federal government can’t run out of is its own currency.… Elected officials have enormous power to take out their pens and their pads and to sit down and to look at that budget line by line and decide where to invest public money.” A budget, Kelton often says, is a moral document, a reflection of social priorities. The financing is the easy part; mustering the political will and enough congressional votes to make it happen is hard. That will require a militant mass movement ready to challenge not only Republicans (this summer, Trump took to Twitter threatening to cut university funding) but centrist Democrats who have perpetuated policy failures instead of addressing root problems.

This country has made bold moves before, and not only at the federal level. In 1930, in the throes of the Great Depression, Brooklyn College was founded. “The school was envisioned as a stepping-stone for the sons and daughters of immigrants and working-class people toward a better life through a superb—and at the time, free—college education,” the official website declares. In the 1960s, Black and Puerto Rican students across the City University of New York system faced police repression to push things further, demanding open admissions so their working-class peers could have the same opportunities. They won their case, and the student body rapidly diversified. But as was the case in California, a combination of racist backlash and recession-driven austerity thwarted progress, undoing the activists’ hard-won reforms.

Half a century later, the CUNY students’ vision for higher education still resonates: They insisted that universities should be both free and open, that public institutions should reflect and serve their communities, and that students should play a role in university decision-making. They also critiqued the concept of meritocracy, insisting that vital knowledge is produced both inside and outside the ivory tower. The students who called for open admissions at CUNY understood that rejecting meritocracy did not mean rejecting rigor or discipline, but rather acknowledging that traditional conceptions of merit veil class and race inequities. They wanted to democratize access to academic excellence on the grounds that education is a right, not a privilege or a commodity. The state, they maintained, should subsidize curiosity. And yet even if we revolutionized higher education in line with their prescriptions and went even further—shutting down for-profits, eliminating tuition, opening admissions, improving and equalizing access and quality across the board—many social problems would persist. More and better education alone will not solve our economic woes; an abundance of college degrees will not make more and better-paying jobs magically appear. If that is our goal, we need a federal jobs guarantee and stronger unions, not more undergraduates. In any case, a college degree, even a free one, should not be a prerequisite to a fair wage and dignified life.

Covid-19 is a crisis of terrifying proportions; the struggle ahead is over how we respond to it. Given America’s history, this response will be shaped, to a large degree, by the persistence of structural racism, on the one hand, and our commitment to racial justice, on the other. We can seize this moment and remake the university into something that is inclusive and liberating, or reinforce long-standing and destructive inequities. If we choose the former path, everyone will benefit. It is clear that millions of working- and middle-class white people also pay a steep price to maintain the racist, segregated status quo.

Public colleges and universities were free not that long ago; they can be free again. But as Hannah Appel told me, we need to define our terms. What does “public” mean? “The unqualified public has always been the white male public in this country,” Appel said. That’s why she argues that we must insist not just on universal public goods but reparative ones. We need systems designed not just to acknowledge our unequal past but to actively repair and redress ongoing harms. Only if we do that can the university live up to its name, embodying the Latin universitas, which means “the whole” or “the world”—a space for everyone, where no subject is off limits.