Towards a Liberatory University Experience

Towards a Liberatory University Experience

In the United States, we’ve sold university as access to the middle class for generations. It hasn’t worked. African Americans with university degrees have less wealth than white Americans with high school diplomas. The high cost of college and the burden of student loan debt is furthering the economic divide in our country. The university of the future needs to be free and designed to increase belonging for all students. When universities in the United States are free – economically, pedagogically, and culturally – they will unlock our true potential as learners and creators.

Free tuition

The cost of college has nearly doubled since I completed my undergraduate degree in 1997.  Today, private university tuition averages about $35,000 and public university tuition is inching towards $10,000 annually. Rising tuition costs coupled with unsubsidized loans means that Americans now owe over a trillion dollars in college debt. The most important feature of university in 2040, will be free tuition for all students. How will this be possible? The federal government will need to protect and increase federally subsidized programs like subsidized student loans (i.e. Stafford), means-tested grants for low-income students (i.e. Pell), federal work study, and Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

As an undergraduate student in a private university and a public-school teacher in the 90s, I benefited from all of these interventions. By 25, I had repaid my student loan debt. Low university debt made saving money, starting a family, and buying a house – cornerstones of the American dream – possible for me.

When the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) studied public university costs and government interventions, the US came out on top with the highest public university costs in the world¹. The rising cost of college doesn’t just impact students from low-income families. Even for elite programs, the cost of university has become a barrier for most Americans. A handful of private universities have started replacing student and parent loans with private grants or scholarships. When New York University’s medical school announced that they would waive tuition costs for all students², they saw a 142% increase in the number of African American, black and Afro Caribbean applicants. Low-debt university will be a critical component for a diverse, equitable post-secondary education in the United States.

Pedagogy of belonging

American universities must provide learning environments where all students feel like they belong on campus. Increasing belonging on campus will require institutional and programmatic interventions for faculty, staff, and students. Research³ shows us that when first generation college students have specific interventions to support belonging, they have higher grade point averages, fewer visits to medical clinics, and report more positive mental health.

For American college students from marginalized experiences (low-income communities, minoritized racial, gender, and linguistic identities, LGBTQIA+, physical and mental disabilities, immigrant status, students as parents, homelessness, first generation college student, first generation immigrant, etc.), simply being a college student creates additional stress of being “othered.” At the very least, these students are preoccupied with thoughts that they don’t deserve to be on campus. In the most egregious cases, their privileged college mates report their presence on campus as threatening4, and they are accosted by police and campus security for accessing university services5 and popular off-campus establishments6. American universities need to invest in radical belonging for all of their students.

Both the acute trauma of being stopped by police and the chronic trauma of stereotype threat from professors and university supervisors have lasting effects on college student success rates. Black students and/or gender non-conforming students are most likely to be profiled and discriminated against, so universities should start their anti-bias training in support of those specific student populations. By 2040, every university must invest in continual professional development for all faculty and staff on identifying and mitigating their own biases.

Pedagogy at the university level must include culturally relevant pedagogy. Unlike other institutions, universities already have the resources that they need to advance belonging on campus. Most universities have robust student affairs programs tasked with developing inclusive services and experiences for all students. Imagine the student affairs department as the internal trainer for the university’s anti-bias anti-racist professional development needs.

“Instead of being siloed to co-curricular activities, student affairs programs anchor interdepartmental interventions and professional training to extend culturally relevant pedagogy across the entire campus”

In 2040, I see a more diverse university, one where students, alumni, faculty, and staff represent the growing diversity of our country. There is value in a positive, diverse university experience to increase our social capital. For the college-going experience to be a positive one, we have to eliminate overt and implicit messages that college is only for privileged people. I agree with Paulo Freire that “education is freedom.” Our country has to figure out how to make university free in both the financial and liberatory sense.

When I let myself imagine the next 20 years, I see college students, from all types of identities, who embrace their studies with confidence. Without the debt burden of college, they prioritize college decisions based on their learning styles. They show up as their whole selves to study with university faculty and staff who are equipped to support their needs. Students from marginalized experiences are more successful than they’ve been in generations. All graduates develop more innovative solutions for the world’s needs and make clear transitions into the workforce with a chance at success.

1 OECD, Education at a Glance 2018: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris, 2018 eag-2018-en

2 Jaschik, Admissions Surge After NYU Med Goes Tuition Free, Inside Higher ED, 2018

3 Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention

improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science, 331, 1447-1451.

4 Wootson, C. Jr. (2018) “A black Yale student fell asleep in her dorm’s common room. A white student called police.” The Washington Post.

5 Jaschik, S. (2019) “Entering Campus Building While Black” Inside Higher ED 6 Moore, D. (2018) “10 black Washington U. students stopped by Clayton police, falsely accused of leaving IHOP without paying




Rhonda Broussard is the Founder & CEO of Beloved Community, a national nonprofit committed to sustainable economic equity in schools, workforce, and housing.  Rhonda holds a BA from Washington University in St Louis and a MA from New York University.  She is a Pahara-Aspen Fellow and an Eisenhower Fellow who studied in Finland and New Zealand.  Rhonda has conducted research in Cameroon, metropolitan France, and Martinique.  Rhonda lives in New Orleans, LA with her bilingual family.  She and her children keep a running list of free universities across the globe for their undergraduate studies.

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