Proposals for ‘free college’: The merits and demerits of the case


During the presidential campaign of 2016, both Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders proposed plans for free public college tuition. Since then, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and others have announced plans for making colleges free of tuition and fees.

This is not a new idea. Units of The City University of New York were started as tuition free in the 1840s and remained largely tuition-free until 1976. Until the early 1970s, California colleges and universities charged virtually no tuition since their founding in the 19th century.

The idea is to make college education accessible and affordable to qualified students from all sectors of society in order for our democracy to be guided by an educated citizenry. This view considers the pursuit of higher learning as a public good, not just a private gain.

After all, college graduates face lower unemployment, better health outcomes and more active civic engagement. Therefore, it makes sense to make higher education available to all who qualify. Also, it is thought that making college free would reduce the reliance on what is considered to be “out of control” student debt.

Those in favor of making tuition free argue that it is affordable to the government because the added costs would be a small percentage of current higher education support. This is thought to be so because (1) the new program would be the “last dollar” of financial aid provided to those eligible after current state, federal and private scholarship programs were applied; (2) the support would be limited to full-time students, with an emphasis on community colleges; and (3) eligibility would be limited to those from families below a certain income level. Most proposals do not address the additional costs of room, books, food, travel, etc.

Some of those opposed to the idea believe that too many people go to college as it is. Others argue that the costs to the public would be excessive. Still others worry about the effect on private colleges that already serve a public purpose.

According to Moody’s, the bond-rating agency, a successful program of free tuition would have negative consequences for regionally oriented private as well as public colleges because students would flock to tuition-free comprehensive state universities.

Indeed, Tennessee experienced a 40 percent increase in students applying for aid when a free tuition program was announced. A major question is how these students can be accommodated at institutions that already have suffered from reductions in state support? Who would pay for the additional faculty, classrooms and counselors needed?

We already can see the effects of state-subsidized tuition levels at state universities. In New York, the demographic profile of students at SUNY campuses shows higher family incomes on average than at New York’s 110 private colleges. With free tuition at SUNY, the disparity would grow even greater, yet we can see that many of these parents can afford the subsidized tuition.

Community colleges, which are central to most proposals for free tuition, already are under-resourced and suffer from inadequate staffing and low graduation rates. These institutions enroll primarily older, non-traditional students who study part-time, not full-time.

Instead of providing free college for those who can afford to pay tuition, it would be better to provide both increased need-based financial aid grants to facilitate student choice and college affordability as well as improved funding for academic programs and faculty to community and other public colleges so as to enable them to improve services and increase their graduation rates.

Robert A. Scott is President Emeritus and University Professor Emeritus, Adelphi University.

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