The beginnings of the municipal college system began after the American Revolution, as the spread of democracy led to the secularization of higher education and the extension of opportunities to the newest immigrants in urban communities. However, even those colleges that were supported largely by public funds weren’t free for all, sometimes offering a limited number of scholarships for study in specific disciplines.
The College of Charleston, South Carolina was chartered in 1785 as a private college with state support, and it became a municipal institution in 1837. Even though the municipality controlled it, it continued to charge tuition, and it was not until 1920 that free tuition to Charleston residents was instituted.
The Free Academy was founded in New York City in 1847 and for the first time in America’s short history, higher education was made available “for the poor man’s children.” Townsend Harris, president of the New York City Board of Education from 1846, strongly believed that the city should support public higher education. He argued that “If the wealthy part of the community seek instruction to enlarge the minds of their children, why should not the opportunity be given to the sons of toil to give the same advantages to their children?” On June 7, 1847 a groundbreaking law was passed establishing the Free Academy, and a site was soon chosen on the southeast corner of Lexington Avenue and Twenty-third Street, where classes began on January 15, 1849.
Although this was a momentous occasion for New Yorkers, it also proved to be a landmark for higher education. What was to follow in New York as well as throughout the country was a democratic equalizer, the opportunity for higher education, for the children of immigrants. Women as well as men, were invited into the circle of those offered advanced education–the Normal College, later Hunter College was founded in the City of New York in 1870. Outside New York City municipal colleges were founded with great zeal–many of them are the foundations of our great state university systems.
The Morrill Act was passed in 1862 providing for grants of federally owned land to the states to be used to help fund state colleges. Many states including Wisconsin, California, Missouri and Georgia established state schools, and like the Free Academy they too responded to the needs of their new citizenry. Agricultural or mechanical training was important to these communities, and the educational paths of their students were often limited. The Free Academy provided for practical studies as well as classical education, a paradigm that other institutions would not follow for decades. An 1850 article praising the Free Academy said that it would fulfill the “Reasonable expectations of its founders,” and that the Free Academy was an institution where “the rich and the poor will be upon an equality,” justification to use the academy as a “model” for American education. (“Dr. Webster and the New-York Free Academy,” 1850-51, p. 445-7)
That first class of 149 young men who entered the original building at 17 Lexington Avenue in 1849 had no way to know that the Free Academy was the seed from which other municipal colleges were to spring. These early students, sons of ship-joiners, carpenters, laborers and porters were to share the educational opportunities previously available to only a select few in society. What followed in New York was a demand for higher education that outgrew the building on Lexington Avenue. Campuses were added to the system and it became the City University of New York. Outside New York City a great State University of New York grew, and a college education became the hallmark of upward mobility in America. (Roff, Cucchiara and Dunlap)
The vision of Townsend Harris and his supporters, has been realized and millions of citizens have received an education that would have been unattainable had it not been for our great municipal system. Baruch College remains on the site of the original Free Academy, and as the legions of students pass this building each day, the legacy of their forebears echoes in its hall, and should not be forgotten.
“Dr. Webster and the New-York Free Academy,” The International Magazine of Literature ,Art, and Science (Vol.2, 1850-1), 445-7.
Sandra Roff, Anthony Cucchiara and Barbara Dunlap. From the Free Academy to CUNY: Illustrating Public Higher Education in New York City, 1847-1997. New York: Fordham University Press, 2000.