Free tuition is a growing political issue in the United States. Most of the free tuition plans out there (for instance in Tennessee and Oregon) are effectively variations of what was recently introduced in Ontario – that is, a re-packaging of student aid so that some students pay “net zero” in college – or at least community colleges. The plan President Obama has presented to Congress over the past twelve months or so seems to be a bit more expansive – that is, actual zero-tuition for two years of community colleges rather than just a re-jigging of aid (personally, I don’t think the math adds up on the proposal but that’s as may be). But it’s still just for public community colleges, which make up around a third of the system as a whole.
A more expansive set of proposals comes from the work of the University of Wisconsin’s Sara Goldrick-Rab and Nancy Kendall, who have produced an even more expansive proposal, which includes two years of free tuition (that is, no up front fees to anyone, not a simple re-jigging of aid to achieve “net zero”) at all public institutions – including 4-year universities – plus substantial financial aid for all.
(I am going to skip Bernie Sanders’ even more expansive plan for four years of free tuition at public universities. That’s partly because I’ll be getting into that later this week when I look at the various presidential candidates’ higher education plans, but also because the Sanders plan isn’t costed in a serious way. Basically, it involves raising revenue by imposing a Tobin tax on financial transactions and states suddenly agreeing to do spend a lot more on higher education, neither of which has a snowball’s chance in hell of happening. So I’m skipping it here to focus on the programs which are actually likely to be a part of public policy over the next couple of years.)
What’s worth noting about all these plans is that they all share one thing in common: they all restrict their ambitions to public institutions. They all assume that private higher education, whether for-profit or non-profit, will go on regardless. In international terms, that would result in a system that looks a lot like Hungary’s or Romania’s: a mostly-free public sector and a full-cost private sector.
This assumption insulates US free-tuition types from one of the arguments made by pro-tuition types (like me) – namely that free-tuition gives away too much to the rich. In the US, the free-tuition types can dismiss that argument by saying – with some justification – that the rich don’t go to public institutions (two-year colleges anyway) because they prefer to seclude themselves in private ones. That being the case, very little of the new subsidy would reach the top quartile, who are the prime beneficiaries of free tuition in countries where education is all or mainly in the public sector.
In fact, if you look at the Goldrick-Rab/Kendall proposal, it’s quite the opposite: the rich in the private institutions pay quite a bit. Her proposal takes away $18 billion in need- or income-based financial aid from students at private not-for-profit universities – it also redirects effectively all existing grants and tax expenditures at both publics and privates as well (the assumption here is that institutions will re-deploy their own aid away from 1st and 2nd years to help upper-year students so that they don’t lose out, but it seems clear that to some degree students in later years might be more loan-dependent than they currently are).
Now, that said, this proposal is not as clearly pro-poor as some of the state policies. By including all publics (including the big flagships), it provides money to a lot of people, many of whom are not what you would traditionally call needy. Making attendance cheaper at prestigious public institutions while increasing net costs at privates may also significantly change enrolment patterns. Almost certainly it will mean fewer low-income students at private universities (which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your point of view); it also probably means some upper-middle class kids will make the switch back to public universities which would to some extent dilute the progressiveness of this measure. Goldrick-Rab and Kendall would almost certainly respond that in the US, only universality will get the middle-class to buy-into a program that would help the poorest; of course, in Canada, we’ve just had two big re-arrangements of student financial aid (in Ontario and federally) which show that our politics are quite the opposite.
The important points here are: i) free community college plans are cheap because they’re near “net free” already; and, ii) a free first-two years plan is at least fiscally conceivable if you completely defund the private system (which may or may not be politically feasible). The former of these is pretty much true in Canada as well. The latter is quite different and depends on a very different set of institutional factors that those at play up here. Don’t assume that the arguments which make sense south of the border also make sense up here.