HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Free Tuition Developments

One major trend of the last couple of years in global higher education has been the arrival of a wave of “free tuition” policies in jurisdictions that formerly charged them and which – in some cases – have substantial private higher education sectors.  But announcing free tuition is one thing: actually pulling it off is another.  Let’s take a quick look-in at how things are playing out in various parts of the world.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte (Luzon’s answer to Donald Trump) declared education at all public universities free in the state budget earlier this year, and the policy came into effect this fall.  Of course, this only affects a minority of students because public universities only educate about 45% of Filipino students: the rest attend one of the country’s 1500 or so private universities.  And fees were never that high to begin with (in the region of $150/year at most state colleges).

But what’s brilliant about the Philippines “free tuition” program is the packaging.  The budget for implementation is only P8 billion ($200 million Canadian or $160 million US), which is considerably short of what is needed to cover all students.  So to make up for it, they are i) putting an academic progress filter on the program (i.e. fail too many courses and you have to start paying fees) and more importantly ii) putting an income filter on it as well.  But, intriguingly, the law doesn’t say “targeted aid for the poor”; rather, what it says is “as a rule, fees shall be abolished” but that universities “shall create a mechanism to enable students with the financial capacity to pay…to voluntarily opt out of the tuition and other school fees subsidy or make a contribution to the school.”  In practice, what this means is that the funds will be distributed to institutions who in turn will provide fee waivers to students in order of financial need (a slightly more detailed explanation is available in this article from the Philippines Star).  Too rich?  No subsidy.  But the actual cut-off line will vary somewhat from institution to institution.

(I know that sounds weird, but running student aid through institutions rather than a national government is actually pretty common in southeast Asia).

Still, the government is sufficiently worried about extra demand that it is reinstating an entrance exam to keep growth in numbers down.  Which of course does make you wonder why they put free tuition in place in the first, if not to increase participation.

Over in Chile, President Bachelet has moved to expand the free tuition subsidy (“gratuidad”) to students from the sixth income decile starting this coming February; previously it was only available to students from the lowest five deciles.  In theory, the government is meant to nudge this up to the seventh decile by 2020, but the likelihood that the left will still be in power by then is pretty slim: polls right now have former centre-right president Sebastian Pinera well out in front, and he’s already more or less said he’s not committed to anything above the 50% threshold.

In the US, two states – New York and Oregon – brought in “free tuition” programs last year.  Oregon’s was a free community college plan, much like Tennessee’s; New York’s was a “targeted free tuition” system for 4-year colleges, which looked much like those in Ontario and New Brunswick only less well-targeted.  Now, both are slightly off the rails because of the weird way that legislation and appropriation happen separately in the US.  Despite “enacting” free tuition, neither state actually set aside enough money to actually make it work properly.  In Oregon, the short-fall means roughly 20% of students who should have been eligible will not receive benefits.  In New York, the demand for the new “Excelsior” scholarships exceeded the budgeted amount by a factor of three.  The best one can say for this situation is, as my colleague Robert Kelchen says, is that this is an unrivalled opportunity to test the “disappointment effect” in student aid.

Meanwhile, back in Canada, our two targeted free tuition programs – in Ontario and New Brunswick – seem to have started without much of a hitch.  For the moment, at least, we’re leading the pack in terms of coherent implementation.  Let’s hope it stays that way.

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