Report Adds Global Perspective to Debate Around Free Tuition Policies

By Joelle Fredman, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Free tuition policies — implemented in a growing number of states across the country as an answer to the rising cost of college — have been met with support and criticism from higher education experts and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. As they debate whether funding such initiatives at community colleges places too much of a burden on taxpayers, a new paper from the Higher Education Policy journal looked at similar policies in other countries and found that they do little to increase access to higher education.

While the excitement around the prospect of free tuition took a backseat after the 2016 election, when it was heavily championed by presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Hillary Clinton, it has again gained momentum among state lawmakers.

Some policies, such as the one Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law last year to make community college free for adult learners, have unique sources of funding like the state’s lottery, while other programs, such as New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposal this month to make community college free for students whose families earn less than $45,000 annually, are funded through state taxes.

Neal McCluskey, a director at the right-leaning think tank the Cato Institute, wrote in an opinion article in The Wall Street Journal earlier this year that it would cost the taxpayer about $1,360 annually to cover the costs of free education — $77,500 in taxes if you live to age 75 and pay beginning at 18.

“Why should people who want to go to college get it paid for in part by people who pursue on-the-job training or other forms of non-college education? Indeed, why should anyone get a degree to increase their lifetime earnings on the backs of taxpayers?” he wrote.

Others, such as Temple University professor Sara Goldrick-Rab, however, have argued that society has much to gain from college-educated people and should shoulder some of the cost. In an opinion piece accompanying McCluskey’s article, Goldrick-Rab wrote that higher education “is an investment that would benefit us all. When people cannot afford education, we all suffer, as they are far less likely to be employed, paying taxes, sending their children to school and contributing to our communities in other ways.”

Looking to free tuition policies in other countries, Ariane de Gayardon, a senior research associate at the Centre for Global Higher Education at University College London, found that many have adopted practices to cover the costs of waived tuition that counter the original intentions of the policy, to increase access to education. For example, she found that across Europe, countries significantly increased non-tuition fees for students for things such as healthcare, on-campus transportation, and athletic services.

“The many realities behind the term ‘free higher education’ show that it is a policy that is hard to sustain and hides many different scenarios, notably in terms of access and success in higher education,” Gayardon wrote. “... Faced with financing challenges, countries offering free public higher education have established hidden cost-sharing mechanisms to alleviate the cost borne by governments. These maintain the pretense of free tuition, while generating revenues.”

Gayardon also found that in order to make up for lost funds, schools restricted the number of fully subsidized seats they offered to students. University of California President Janet Napolitano, speaking Thursday at the Education Writers Association’s (EWA) 2018 annual conference, expressed similar concerns about free tuition programs at community colleges, arguing that bachelor’s degree programs will face capacity issues as troves of students transfer in after two years of discounted education.  

In addition to issues with regard to funding free tuition policies, Gayardon also found that student participation in these programs varied greatly across countries and that there was little correlation between countries that adopted free tuition policies and their graduation rates.  

Earlier this month three higher education groups published a report that echoed similar concerns with a focus on College Promise programs arguing that while they may help students attend college, they don’t do enough to ensure they graduate.

The groups wrote that in order to increase completion rates, schools with free tuition programs should address the obstacles that cause students to drop out, such as "long sequences of non-credit remedial courses, enrollment patterns that don't translate into on-time completion, and limitless program options without clear pathways for students to follow."

Based on her exploration of free tuition policies across the globe, Gayardon concluded that free tuition alone is not enough to improve access to education.  

“In that sense, free higher education should not be considered a miracle solution: it can only succeed, like other cost-sharing policies, if appropriately supported by access-specific policies — such as carefully designed financial aid policies, improved quality in the secondary system, remediation courses, or affirmative action quotas,” Gayardon wrote.


Publication Date: 5/21/2018

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